I'll start by saying that Leviathan, the brilliant, groundbreaking new film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, is not what one generally thinks of as a documentary. It is non-fiction, that much is inarguable, but it's subject is not one of fact, one of uncovering truth through points and narratives – in fact, I would argue there is not a narrative at all. Leviathan's modus operandi in conveying its truth, showing the viewer what it wants them to see, is more akin to music or visual art than cinema; Castaing-Taylor and Paravel having more in common with Rothko or Nam June Paik than Errol Morris.
The film is shot on a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, capturing the work the fishermen do on the boat as well as the nature of the sea. The film follows no plot or narrative, with the exception of an opening title card, a biblical passage from the Book of Job about the hellishness of the sea. With this and the title as a framing device, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel set out to paint this portrait of hellishness, of horror, through a visceral visual and aural experience which puts the viewer on the deck of this vessel. The opening shot of the film, approximately ten to fifteen minutes in length, shows a net of fish reeled up and dumped onto the deck, in an expressionistic cacophony of high-contrast reds and blacks, accompanied by a symphony of clashes and clangs. From this unsettlingly beautiful opening shot, the film grips the viewer, and doesn't let go until the film is over.
More than anything, perhaps, Leviathan is a technical marvel. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take care of almost all of these duties, from producing, directing, and writing, to editing, sound and cinematography. And the cinematography, a gorgeous visceral syncretism of light and dark, life and death, man and nature, makes it the most beautifully photographed film of the year, hands-down.
The Rothko comparison was really an accurate one in understanding how the film shakes the audience so. Like a massive canvas of his, or a symphony of Beethoven's, it finds in its abstract form a means of forging a rawly animalistic energy that representational features rarely acheive. Towards the end, Leviathan drags a bit, but that is to expected of such a film, and it is something of a marvel that it can be as relentless as it is for as long as it is. Leviathan is a difficult film to adore, but if the viewer is willing to give into it completely, it is a relentlessly powerful visceral experience, and something that I'm not sure has ever been seen before.