The biggest challenge facing a viewer in the opening moments of Leviathan is working out just what in fact they are looking at. The film opens in darkness, presenting us with murky, indecipherable images and a soundtrack of mechanical sounds with a few men's voices being barely audible above the din. As our eyes adjust to the image and the camera begins to reveal more of its surroundings, we realise we are onboard a fishing vessel somewhere in the middle of the ocean at the dead of night. We are watching commercial fishermen hauling in a huge catch, with cameras apparently fixed to the helmet of one of the men giving us as subjective a view of this procedure as cinema can manage. At least we can be thankful that the film has no way of expressing the smell.
Co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel haven't kept any kind of objective distance from events on board this trawler, and instead they have plunged straight into the midst of it, using a number of small cameras positioned around the vessel and given to crew members. These cameras have captured the tumultuous nature of the sea, and the violent struggle between man and nature, with a visceral immediacy that is equal parts disorientating and exhilarating. Leviathan is also a powerful argument for the redundancy of 3D, as few film experiences are as immersive as this.
Lucien Castaing-Taylor's last feature film was Sweetgrass, which he co-directed with Ilisa Barbash (but went uncredited), and like that film, Leviathan is an examination of men at work, and a way of life far removed from regular society. But whereas Sweetgrass had a leisurely rhythm entirely appropriate for its portrait of sheep being herded across a mountain range, Leviathan possesses a harder and faster editing style; the film is a maelstrom rather than a ramble. The cutting is sharp throughout and from the vast amount of footage they collected from their multiple viewpoints, the filmmakers have astutely picked out a series of striking images that instantly imprint themselves on viewers' minds. From close-ups of dying fish packed inside the trawler's huge nets to a shot of blood-red water pouring over the side after the catch has been gutted, Leviathan consistently finds seemingly incidental details that feed our sensory experience of this vessel.
Towards the end of Leviathan, the filmmakers include a lovely shot of one fisherman sitting in the break room and slowly nodding off in front of the TV. It's a rare moment of quiet in a film that thrives on chaos, and while the men involved in the expeditions that Leviathan captures are all credited at the end of the film, they don't make any impression in the film itself. They remain on the fringes as they work diligently and efficiently, no more human than the machinery utilised in their process. Perhaps this is why I was slightly less satisfied by Leviathan than Sweetgrass. The shepherds being followed by that earlier film offered a point of engagement for the audience, their journey provided a narrative shape, and the fact that their way of life was coming to an end gave the film an affecting elegiac quality. This film doesn't offer any such hook for the audience, as Castaing-Taylor and Paravel disregard any rules of documentary filmmaking, and this approach can be both thrilling and vexing.
Even if I found it sometimes frustrating to watch, there's no denying the astounding formal achievement that's evident in Leviathan, with the expert editing and sound design being particularly praiseworthy. The filmmakers occasionally emit a whiff of pretension, through decisions such as opening with a quote from the Book of Job ("He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.") or listing the Latin names of every creature caught in the end credits, but they have created something spectacular here. Leviathan's signature image may be the remarkable upside-down shot of countless seagulls following the trawler, and that's what the film does at its best; it forces us to look at the world from a different angle, seeing commonplace occurrences through fresh eyes. Leviathan is exploring territory that's centuries old – in fact, it was filmed in the same waters that Melville used for The Pequod's epic pursuit of a whale in Moby-Dick – but the manner in which it has been created makes this primal struggle between man and nature feel dramatically new.