Review: Leviathan


Watching Leviathan made me think about how important the venue is for certain movies. The same goes for the difference between idea/intent and the actual work. This experimental documentary presents the stuff that happens on a fishing boat. The camera jostles on the deck, it dangles off the edge, it winds up overboard in the water to bob up and down with the waves. There’s no narration, no music, no overt thesis, no guiding hands — it aims only to present without commentary (which is still a kind of commentary).

There’s a slaughterhouse chic that reminded me of Georges Franju’s The Blood of Beasts. The abstractions of light and color recall the work of Stan Brakhage. I even got a vibe of Alan Resnais’s short documentaries and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy. I like all of those.

As for Leviathan, if I saw it at an art gallery, I’d think it’s interesting. But watching it a theater, it went from interesting to excruciating.

[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]

Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
Rating: NR
Release Date: March 1, 2013 (limited)

Leviathan is essentially a long day on a fishing boat. At night or early morning, we’re on deck covered in spray watching as nets get pulled out from the deep. The camera wobbles on a helmet, obscuring each image into shadows and Crayola blurs with occasional glimpses at the deck. The dialogue is mixed down into a murmur no more articulate than the machinery on the ship. The fish are brought up and slaughtered, their heads kicked around. Rays are sliced up into thirds while their mouths pucker helplessly in death. Scallops are scooped off the deck and then scraped out from their shells. And the great hulking beast of a ship rides on, dumping its waste back into the ocean in a stream of bloody water and flesh. Hungry gulls flap about alongside the ship, and the camera, pitched in different directions and never righted, gives the audience a bizarre sense of vertigo.

It’s like that, but not as interesting as it sounds, or at least not as interesting given its length.

There are admirable qualities about Leviathan. The imagery can be striking, and I was especially moved by one moment in the film where the camera zips through the water behind the ship’s belched out waste. Starfish and other bits of detritus shoot by the camera as if we’re doing some sort of bizarre interstellar travel. The sound is also pretty interesting at times. I could swear there was an intentional sonic correspondence between the skid of scallop shells on deck to the removal of the scallops in their shell to the abrasive, tinny sound of the camera coming in and out of the water.

But even admirable things overstay their welcome, and what begins as an ecstasy of sound and fury becomes an agonizing slog. How long do we linger on a fish head? How long do we dart through the ocean? Why are we shown a fisherman showering? It’s all so arbitrary even if the aim is a slice of life.

In one scene later in the film, we watch the ship’s captain watching television while he slowly fights falling asleep. I think this was the moment that broke the last of my goodwill for Leviathan. I mentioned in my review for Tabu how the depiction of boredom in a book or a movie winds up being more boring than the boredom of real life. Here, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel captured real-life drowsiness and linger on it. For what seems like eight minutes. Signifying what? Just the nature of drowsiness. Drowsy = drowsy, boring = boring. This isn’t a moment when we see the ugliness at the end of every dinner fork. This sort of thing is just the evil of banality. The only thing more evil (or more banal) would be to ascribe any sort of existential or intellectual significance to a man just barely awake while his sandwich fixings rest on the table before him.

During the New York Film Festival press conference for Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor said that they ideally wanted to make films that say nothing. It was in response to a question about what Leviathan has to say about the nature of the fishing industry. They didn’t want to make a film that was reducible to a point that can be easily articulated in language. So really, saying you want to make films that say nothing is disingenuous, especially since he was able to articulate a larger point and hint at others. While crafting his response, Castaing-Taylor made an oblique (and I think intentional) reference to philosopher Martin Heidegger — the phrase “being in the world” was used — which hints at some kind of phenomenological aspect to the movie. Perhaps it was an attempt to express the nature of Being without commentary and only through image, immersion, and a film object that is unlike other film objects. (Heidegger wrote several books about the nature of Being and never quite completed his grand philosophical project.)

But doing is a kind of saying, and even if you don’t want to reduce a film to a simple sociopolitical or aesthetic statement, it seems odd and disingenuous to hide behind the aegis of non-statement. To open a movie with an excerpt from the Book of Job is to say something. To make a movie in which the camera floats free and is never reoriented is to say something. To manipulate sound and color is to say something. Any attempt to divest statements of meaning from a film is still a form of statement, and still an articulation of intent. This might all be a reflection of what I perceive as the film’s arbitrariness: it wants to express something intellectual but doesn’t want to express something intellectual at the same time; and it wants to be aesthetic and anti-aesthetic at the same time; and it wants to be a cinematic experience while also anti-cinematic.

There was a steady stream of walkouts during the screening I was at. There were also walkouts at the public screening for the film. It’s unavoidable. The movie is often so interminably boring that it can incapacitate even the sturdiest of cineastes. Part of this may be, at least for me, the difference between admiration for an idea or an intent and admiration for the expression of an idea or intent. There is something rich in Leviathan that’s drowned out by its presentation. Like the camera coming up from the water and down again, it’s as if the significant portions I glommed onto were just repeatedly dunked and throttled.

That’s where the idea of venue comes in. Had I seen Leviathan at an art gallery, I probably wouldn’t have minded it as much. If it were projected in a darkened room, I’d dip in and admire what I’d seen and then step out to see other pieces on the floor. I wouldn’t stay for the whole thing; only long enough to be be fascinated, to have my curiosity sated, and that’s it. Maybe in a gallery they’d have the sense to make Leviathan a half-hour short instead of a full-length film. Chop away the excess like the movie was a pathetic stingray, leave a latent fingerprint on the clay of this sculpture. It would turn Leviathan from an unwieldy bulk of a thing into something probably more meaningful and profound. (Maybe that says something about my own taste, like how I can sit through and love Brakhage’s short films but can’t do a lot of his long ones.)

But I wasn’t in an art gallery and this wasn’t hacked down to its most essential, edible bits. To watch Leviathan in a theater for that long made me feel trapped, lost at sea, frustrated, bored, and agitated. I think of it as an alienating intellectual and aesthetic experience; I think of it as avant-garde water torture.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I hate Leviathan. I really, really hate it. In the past year, I have seen three films at festivals that have completely ruined my mood and my day with their complete and utter failure: Policeman, which showed at last year’s New York Film Festival and has put me off of Israeli cinema for at least another few years; Cut, which I felt had absolutely no respect for me as a viewer and legitimately wasted two hours of my life; and Leviathan, which fits snugly in between those two on my list of worst films ever.

I wish I had known that Leviathan was an experimental pseudo-documentary about fishing. Not because it would have made me like it any more, but because I would have realized that there was basically no way I could have enjoyed it. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that the film didn’t have a narrative, and it took me even longer to realize it was supposed to be documenting an experience. I have talked to people who claim to have enjoyed the film, but I simply cannot fathom their logic. Leviathan is an 87-minute endurance test. Each shot is interesting for 15 seconds and then goes on for another five minutes. Nothing more happens, nothing changes, and the crashing of the waves and the rattling of the wind makes the audio unbearable to sit through. Maybe at one-quarter of the length (or less), Leviathan would be something worth considering. As it is, though, I would sooner recommend playing in traffic. It’s an awful, awful film, and nobody should ever see it. Ever. 19 – Atrocious

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.