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At Toronto International Film Festival: Leviathan, A Fish Story

If you thought the handheld camera that’s so much in vogue these days was dizzying, prepare yourself for Leviathan. If you thought you loved fish, prepare for an industrial-sized portion that might make you reconsider. This doc takes you on one night’s work on a fishing boat that sets out from Gloucester Massachusetts. They fish for cod, skate and scallops, and digital cameras mounted at various places on the boat take it all in. It’s a disorienting and dazzling visual experience from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. (Castaing-Taylor is the founder of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab at Harvard.)

The Ocean – Casting Is Everything

Leviathan gives us the sea’s eye view, the birds’ eye view (viewing seagulls that escort the ship) and the crews’ eye view as men wade through piles of fish and cut up the most saleable, which means that soon enough they are wading in blood. On the boat, it’s a tactile experience as marine creatures in their last moments of life pile up on the deck. In the water, bobbing up and down with the camera, you find yourself gulping for air – or running for cover, it you’re prone to seasickness. As floodlights illuminate the deck so the crew can slice up the catch in chiaroscura worthy of an expressionist production of a Melville story, the seagulls above reflect that intense light as a surreal white set of shapes moving horizontally, conjuring images from the patterns of M. C. Escher.

Leviathan is observation of a complete sort that makes sensurround and other disaster effects seem tame. There’s no judgment of what this netting and harvesting does to ocean life, although the men aboard the ship are knee-deep, or deeper, on a slaugheterhouse floor. Some fish are fortunate enough to be thrown back – not many. And the respite may be short. The ship, and others, will be back tomorrow.

There are some truly extraordinary images in Leviathan, even though the title sounds a little too momentous for what’s happening here, unless you’re a fish.  Two crewmen prepare skate for packing  – one holds up a whole fish on a hook, the other slices each wing off, one by one, with a full single stroke of what looks like a machete. The camera moves to some of the skates on the deck – their lips seem lifted right from human faces, other skate physiognomies look like things you’ve seen on the Pee Wee Herman Show. Eerie is an understatement. Then there are the scallops – delicacies in the finest restaurants in New York and Boston and beyond. Those of us who savor these shellfish probably haven’t been on board a ship dragging the ocean floor for them, nor have we seen the crew gathering them in their shells, which sound like shards of broken pottery. When the nets containing the scallops and anything else from the raked sea bottom are emptied , starfish float slowly down from the surface. Illuminated by lights underneath the ship for the camera mounted there, the underwater visions look like Joan Miro’s extraordinary Constellations.

Painterly isn’t a word that you’d associate with Leviathan, but there’s a long shot of a crewmen, exhausted, with ruddy cheeks, a large bulging body, and the vacant expression that you could find in a painting of a man well into his cups by Franz Hals. Here’s it’s more mass than merriment, complete with a sort of still-life on the table nearby – not exquisite fruits of the sea, but a mayonnaise jar, a loaf of white bread, and other edibles of the most ordinary kind.

The French have led the way with improbable documentaries no less vivid for their subjects’ oddness or severity. Think of Microcosmos, in the world of microscopic organisms, the March of the Penguins in Antarctica, and now Leviathan, in the dark seas off New England.   Vive la compagnie.

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