Leviathan’s Directors: Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Entering the Belly of the Beast with Leviathan
Mar 04, 2013
Qualifiers such as "like nothing you've ever seen" or "not for the faint of heart" find themselves so ubiquitously inserted into film marketing that any inherent interest produced as a result of their use is commonly downgraded to, at best, ambivalence. However, there's no better way to describe Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's bombastic, lyrical, and elegiac new documentary about a commercial fishing vessel off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In many ways the film defies both terminology and genre, as it serves both as a document of the purest order and a work so highly stylized that it would be easy to question whether it's a documentary at all. A socio-anthropological nightmare presented in one fell swoop, the film takes a metaphysical look at the process behind commercial fishing, transcending the "nature doc" categorization by closely examining the ecology of the environment through which some men make a harsh and brutal living. Don't let the subject matter fool you, though; the film's style more closely resembles Biohazard than Bach.
Presented with visual extremity and aural fervor, a purposely cacophonous visual approach seeks the truth in all of nature's elements, humans being just one type, in order to fully immerse the viewer. "We wanted to encounter something, to feel something, to understand something," Paravel states. "Our goal is to burden you with the aggravation of experience."
Small cameras, of which many were lost, says Paravel, were attached to every crevice along the ship's frame, including the fisherman. This sort of varied and intimate approach allowed the directors to survey the life cycle in all its entirety: fish go from net to holding container; holding containers give way to the machinizations of killing; a bird, stuck at the bottom of one of the boat's walls, struggles until it falls over the side; the tumultuous seas rock the boat back and forth as it struggles to maintain balance.
This sort of shifting perspective draws attention to the brutality and beauty along all aspects of the food chain. "It's about interspecies and relationships," Paravel qualifies. "At some point we say interspecies bestiality, and the threshold between animal, human, and machine and the matter of the world in some totalizing way."
"It's about bringing things together in a cosmic way," Castaing-Taylor adds.
Biblical reference notwithstanding, the film's title takes on a meta quality almost immediately after the title sequence finishes. "We weren't oblivious to the Thomas Hobbes reference, of course," says Castaing-Taylor. "Hobbes placed a lot of importance on the social contract and the state. He placed a lot of importance on the primary sense experience. So in a way we're at the other end of the spectrum. This film is immersive and first person and experiential, but there's no explanatory apparatus. The state and multinationals have played a huge role in commercial fishing over the last 150 years and we wanted to encourage people to think about their role in this process."
The film is a 90-minute tonal poem in which no non-diegetic sound enters the frame. In lieu of any narration of narrative handholding, sounds are amplified to a hyperbolic degree. To create this sort of hyper-realization, the directors found themselves in a "paradoxical, catch-22 type of situation" where the heavily styled nature of the film might trump its ability to serve as accurate document.
If something were scripted, "to what extent can the accidental and the contingent or the uncontrolled enter the frame?" questions Castaing-Taylor. "That, to us, is the one quality of documentary that can distinguish itself from fiction. We have the 'maximization of the uncontrolled' that can overpower the scripted or the directed. We never aim for simulacrum. "
"Leviathan is a film of sensory overload," he continues, "but I don't think that in all documentaries you need to feel like you're reeling at the end of the experience."
The terse approach harkens back to some of the more harrowing found-footage horror films of late. It's a similarity that was unintended, but perhaps serendipitous. "We filmed with our fear," Paravel says. "Every time I was scared I would go out and film. To fight the fear was easier by looking through the viewfinder."
And it's true. By this point in the film the viewer, acting as surrogate for the fisherman, teeters on the edge of sea-sickness. His exhaustion is echoed in our thankful reprieve.
Respite is finally achieved when one of the main fisherman takes a much needed break from his stressful work. An extended scene cleverly watches the man as he watches television. He battles consciousness as the remains of the day fight for a much-needed nap.
"That scene wouldn't work at all had it been 10 or 20 seconds," Castaing-Taylor comments. "We've gotten to the point where we expect one spectacle after another to fill the frame. It's only by allowing the shot to run for four uninterrupted minutes and running in real-time that it has the pathos or poignancy that's necessary."
Leviathan incorporates the thematic elements into a stylistic framework to manifest a documentary that acts on any number of levels, from reactionary to existential and everything in between.
"As long as there's something revelatory in some way that gives you a fresh perspective on the world," says Castaing-Taylor.
[Leviathan is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, NY and is coming to other cities soon. Check out the Leviathan website for more info on screenings: www.arretetoncinema.org/leviathan/screenings.html]