“Leviathan” – What the hell is this?

Leviathan birds1

Leviathan – Wednesday, February 13  at Magno Review. A film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel. This film may be nominally called a documentary, but it’s so far from any documentary I’ve ever seen that it defies description. The press notes call Leviathan a “groundbreaking, immersive portrait of the contemporary fishing industry.” The only accurate word in that phrase is “immersive.” From the very first image the viewer is plunged deep into a swirl of who-knows-what images and sounds, without any context whatsoever.

I thought it might be appropriate, given the raw-feed nature of the film, to show my tortured, unedited notes as I scrawled them in the dark during the screening:

“…like being waterboarded by a movie…disorienting…alienating…horror film…matter-of-fact brutality…never a sense of what’s going on or why or how…violent and dehumanizing…no establishing shots at all…45 minutes into it a guy taking a shower, very abstract image that goes on and on…what am I supposed to take away from this film?…motion sickness…like being on another planet with no reference points…Lovecraft…Bosch…vision of Hell…activity without meaning…assaultive, negative experience…long, static shot in the galley, fisherman at table watching TV we don’t see, goes on and on, he falls asleep…film gives no idea of what it’s like being on one of these ships…as if things aren’t abstract enough, lengthy shots of birds in the sky are suddenly turned upside down…much of the time we don’t know what we’re looking at.”

It’s a good thing I knew beforehand that Leviathan was shot aboard a fishing trawler off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, because the film is simply not interested in supplying that (or any other) information. Leviathan is a purely sensory experience, visual and aural. Titles at the start of the trailer supply a context that you never get in the film.

I’m not saying I don’t want to see films that are experimental, impressionistic, and avant-garde, which this definitely is. But Leviathan seems to be a collection of arbitrarily selected shots edited in such a way as to be as chaotic as possible. If the trailer sparks your interest at all, be warned that nearly every one of these shots goes on for what seems forever. I love long takes in films, but this is something else entirely. If I’m going to be shown the blurry image of a man taking a shower for maybe five minutes, I’d like to have some idea, however vague, of why it’s in the film. The most interesting shots in Leviathan are of birds flying against the sky, but then this footage is turned upside down, and we watch that, also for a very long time.

I obviously just don’t get it. I’m certainly not the best audience for Leviathan, but I’m not sure who would be. The film seems to go out of its way to beat you up with sound and image. When I later watched a video of the filmmakers’ press conference at last year’s New York Film Festival, I was put off immediately when co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor began by asking if anyone in the audience had an asthma inhaler he could borrow. When asked what the filmmakers were trying to say about the fishing industry, he said they weren’t trying to say anything, that they didn’t want to say anything reducible to words and meaning. This seems pretty pretentious to me. He also acknowledged that the film can be quite stressful and anxiety-inducing to watch. So maybe my reaction was exactly what was hoped for. He seemed hostile and condescending in the press conference, very much the superior artiste. His co-director, Véréna Paravel, has a limited command of English, yet Castaing-Taylor, who is quite fluent, continually insisted that she answer questions rather than himself. Instead of  expanding the way I might see Leviathan, the press conference only reinforced my negative take on the film.

To be fair, Leviathan has been shown at a number of film festivals, has won several awards, and definitely has its champions. For example, Rich Juzwiak’s review in Gawker is much more positive and open to the film than mine. As I’ve indicated, I have a hard time with a film this abstract (and for me, abstract in a hostile way, which is what bothers me the most). I need to be able to relate to whatever I’m seeing, to find a way to hook into the material, which is usually through story and (most importantly) characters. Though I agree with Jean-Luc Godard, who once said that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

I saw Leviathan at a screening in February, and wasn’t sure I wanted to write about it. It’s much more rewarding and definitely more fun writing about films I like. I try to convey my enthusiasm for those films. But Leviathan is still playing here in NYC, and since I’m still trying to sort out my response to the film, I decided to go ahead and lay out my thoughts. You’ll have to decide if Leviathan is a film you want to see if it comes your way.  – Ted Hicks

** From what I can find, Leviathan is not yet available from either Amazon or Netflix. This is definitely not multiplex fare; art houses and film societies are the likely venues. **

About Ted Hicks

Iowa farm boy; have lived in NYC for 40 years; worked in motion picture labs, film/video distribution, subtitling, media-awards program; obsessive film-goer all my life.
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6 Responses to “Leviathan” – What the hell is this?

  1. barbara hughes says:

    thanks.. very insightful,,barbara

  2. Tom Thel says:

    Watched the trailer, got seasick.

    They ought to invent a new kind of kaliedoscope for films like this (if there are any) so you can just watch the imagery and control the speed and flow of time.

  3. Jim Schwantes says:

    The film was certainly provocative for you, Ted. I doubt I could have made it through this one, and I totally made it through Koyaanisqatsi and loved it. Your review, on the other hand, is totally engaging. Some art is confrontational, but at some point I want to be able to get that it opened me up to something or brought me somewhere unexpected. I need the artist to have a vision that leaves me some other question than “Did I just waste my time?” Thanks.

  4. First of all, I LOVE the title for this post. Hilarious!

    Secondly, thanks for the heads up about this film. I NEVER would have heard of it otherwise.

  5. I was planning to watch this during the Miami International Film Festival, but then a few things happened. First, I would have had to watch it on the last day of the festival, and by then I do not want to think or be challenged. Second, I watched the “trailer”.

    Your review was great, and I’m glad you reinforced my decision to skip this one.

  6. Beer Movie says:

    Great review. I wouldn’t mind checking the film out actually, just to see what I think. Not sure I will ever get the chance though. Director sounds like an utter douche.

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