End of days or the beginning of new ways of seeing? Fittingly, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, an all-senses-consuming chronicle of a fishing trawler, takes its title from the sea beast described in the Book of Job, lines from which constitute the film’s epigraph: “He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.” Here, the roiling of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, suggests nothing less than the apocalypse. (Indeed, nature’s waterlogged wrath may be too fresh for many viewers along the Eastern Seaboard). And yet, in going far beyond observational-documentary mode into full, relentless, estranging immersion, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have created a work that has the power to ignite long-dormant synapses. (Like those perhaps apocryphal viewers who screamed and ran to the back of the room while watching the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, I, too, was often terrified—pleasingly—by what I saw.)
In their previous works, Castaing-Taylor, the director of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Paravel, a faculty member in the program, have been drawn to vanishing ways of life. The unforgettable sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass (2009), which Castaing-Taylor directed with Ilisa Barbash, records the last time, in the early aughts, that cowboys led their flocks up into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture. Paravel’s Foreign Parts (2010), which she co-directed with J.P. Sniadecki, presents the ramshackle Willets Point section of Queens, an area soon to be razed to make room for a hotel and a convention center. Like these films, Leviathan, itself about an endangered industry, brooks no sentimentality. But unlike the earlier works, framed in crisp, frequently majestic compositions, Leviathan lists and pitches, always in ceaseless, disorienting motion; its point of view rapidly shifts from fisherman to seagull to gasping fish to flotsam and jetsam several leagues below.
The density of aural and visual stimuli overwhelms—and liberates. What at first sounds like an alarm on deck could be the keening of an animal or a member of the crew. Most of the fishers’ barked directives are unintelligible, except for this one: “No, no, no, no, no!” Cratered, scabbed, and creased faces, fleetingly glimpsed, convey just how brutal this work is—a point wryly underscored as one beefy shipmate, watching what sounds like Deadliest Catch, slowly nods out, lulled to sleep by the TV’s histrionic voiceover. Fish guts, heads, eyeballs, and blood rush toward you, though it often takes a few moments to register that what you’re seeing is a piscine abattoir. But those moments of confusion, of feeling unmoored, approximate the rush of free fall.
Plunging viewers into the thick of chaos, Leviathan explodes the antiquated paradigm of the documentary or ethnographic film, whose mission has traditionally been to educate or elucidate, to create something that seizes us, never letting us forget just how disordered the world is. This may be the greatest lesson any nonfiction film can teach us.