NYFF Review: “Leviathan”

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's "Leviathan."Films that traffic in the abstract can be difficult to objectively judge, because each viewer is either lured in by the style or they aren’t. “Leviathan” is one such film, so much so that I won’t even pretend to understand the viewpoint of those praising it. For the full 87 minute runtime, I tried to connect with the filmmakers’ vision, but found little that was emotionally or intellectually engaging.

While “Leviathan” is ostensibly a documentary in that it is a non-fiction portrait of the commercial fishing industry, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel aim more for an artistic, impressionistic portrait of their subject than an objective observance of it. Lacking narration and a logical sense of progression, the film drowns out any notion of narrative coherency in a million gallons of seawater and chum. “Leviathan” plays as a loosely-connected series of vignettes that depict the conditions on a commercial fishing boat, captured through abstract compositions which often present an unclear view of the action — full of unusual shapes, color combinations, and lighting. Through this style, fishermen are shown bringing in nets, shucking oysters, and watching television (seriously). A seagull scours the deck for scraps, fish guts slide around in a basin, and the black, black depths of the ocean linger. “Leviathan” offers a purely sensory experience.

Unfortunately, it’s a sensory experience in the oppressive sense of the term. Filmmakers Castaing-Taylor and Paravel use extremely long takes, presumably to immerse the viewer in the film’s world, but most will find the style to be downright grating. The camera spends about a third of the film submerged in water, commonly vacillating above and below the surface of the turbulent ocean. This creates an annoying sound that, combined with the darkness of the water, only serves to irritate those who are not under the film’s spell (which is to say, the majority of the audience). Several times throughout the movie, this shot remains onscreen for no fewer than five minutes. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s style is so uncompromisingly inaccessible that it’s almost as if they are deliberately trying to alienate any viewer who questions its artistic value.

There are some bright spots amid the inscrutability, mostly involving in-your-face ultra-violence done unto sea creatures, which peppers an otherwise mundane film with excitement and viscera. (Of course, those who are sensitive to animal cruelty will not take so kindly to such passages.) Because the filmmakers always shoot these bits of gore in extreme close-up, they briefly turn “Leviathan” into a horror movie. Even though one’s natural reaction is to look away from the sight of fishermen dismembering stingrays with machetes, there is a level of kinesthetic gratification to the spectacle of the experience, much like one would find in a genre film. Members of the New York Film Festival audience sprang back from the screen in fright as dead fish slid back and forth through the frame, often coming close to the camera lens. “Leviathan” succeeds during these segments because it engages one’s primal emotions, immersing the viewer in a world that most will never experience — it’s too bad they are few and far between.

There is something to be said for a movie that tries for something different, even if it falls short. But despite “Leviathan”’s repeated suggestion of its own ambition–just consider the title–it’s never clear what something different it is trying for. Even Castaing-Taylor and Paravel themselves don’t seem to know their artistic intent, if the NYFF post-screening Q&A was any indication. When asked directly about the film’s overall message, they said something to the effect of, “It is whatever you want it to be.” Yeah, right: whatever.