Runs Fri. April 5-Thurs. April 11 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 87 minutes.
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, Leviathan presents itself as a radical rethink of documentary form. There’s no narrator, no context, no thesis or conventional A-B-C scene logic. Nor is there any explanation—until you read the lengthy end credits—as to what fishing vessel we’re watching, or who are its crew. Leviathan is seemingly not “about” anything besides the messy, noisy process of commercial fishing. The camera pivots wildly to and fro, forcing us into its POV; many scenes are shot at night, adding to the murk; and the ship’s grunting crewmen barely utter an intelligible word. Unlike on the reality TV show Deadliest Catch, these guys aren’t given personalities or backstories. They’re just cogs in the manual-industrial business of putting seafood on our plates.
You could argue, of course, that documentary director Frederick Wiseman has been here before; only in a film like his 2009 Le Danse, there’s the appeal of watching graceful performers rehearse at the Paris Opera Ballet. What Castaing-Taylor and Paravel give us instead are fish heads and guts sloshing across the deck, the endless whining of the winches, nets dumping their haul, churning diesel engines, boredom in the break room, and a squadron of seabirds trailing the trawler, their wings lit white against the night by its lights. The camera even lunges overboard, where bloody entrails plummet down like red rain.
Leviathan is certainly not after beauty, which may be its entire point. Instead of seeking soaring tuna or glistening salmon, these Massachusetts fishermen drag their nets for ugly bottom fish, also pulling up crabs, rays, and bulging-eyed beasts that would never be served in any fine restaurant. This is the kind of catch that gets chopped up into bits, then reassembled into something that looks like seafood. Or maybe it ends up as cat food, who knows? Leviathan is a chore to sit through, but it gives you room to think about what you’re seeing. Beyond its stunt opacity, it is just another food doc—like Sushi: The Global Catch, Food, Inc., Food Fight, or Our Daily Bread—only without the talking heads and agenda. This makes it both familiar and completely ineffective. There’s a lack of substance hiding behind a lack of form.