After the much-laureled nonfiction feature “Sweetgrass,” British-born helmer Lucien Castaing-Taylor makes a sure-to-be-talked-about follow-up with the semi-experimental sea-fishing docu “Leviathan.” Together with French co-helmer Verena Paravel, Castaing-Taylor lets loose his agile cameras in and around a fishing trawler off the coast of New Bedford, Mass., presenting the images — which bring to mind everything from dark impressionist paintings to the work of Philippe Grandrieux — without any context or commentary. A purely artistic endeavor, with de rigueur arty longueurs, the pic could play fests and alternative exhibition spaces but will be a fishy proposition for any type of commercial release.
During the first 25 minutes, auds will have to work hard even to figure out what they’re looking at, as chains and nets are moved around in almost pitch-black darkness. The intense soundscape sometimes comes to the rescue; at one point, white flecks against the night sky can reasonably be identified, based on the soundtrack, as seagulls (the terrific audio is designed by “Sweetgrass” alum Ernst Karel).
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Visibility improves after the ship’s all-male crew — each soaked, with a cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth — have hauled in the night’s catch and, by artificial light and later daylight, start beheading the fish and cleaning the crustaceans at an impressively rapid pace.
It’s during this midsection that “Leviathan” offers most food for thought, despite a total absence of any kind of spoken commentary (what little diegetic dialogue exists is mostly drowned out by other noises). The crude, brutal way in which the sea is apparently emptied of its living creatures — whose useless parts, such as heads, are swiftly discarded — will launch ecologically minded auds into a reflection on not only the hard manual labor involved even in modern fishing, but also how much waste occurs (most of it dumped backed into the sea). Though the film lacks a coherently argued case a la “Darwin’s Nightmare,” some of the images are potent enough to generate strong reactions.
Indeed, although the editing could have been tighter, with many scenes running on and on for no apparent purpose except to perhaps suggest that life at sea can be repetitive and boring, the pic contains several striking visuals that range from disturbing to beautiful. Working with small digital cameras that often seem to move about independently, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel not only cover a great many angles onboard, but also leap overboard to catch what’s happening next to and just under the trawler. Slightly saturated shots, such as the underwater view of superfluous, vermillion-colored starfish being dumped back into the turquoise waters in a blood-tinted cascade of fish offal, are marvelously composed and colored, though often closer to semi-abstract art than the you-are-there realism of more conventional docus.
Pic’s title comes from the sea creature mentioned in the book of Job, which is briefly quoted at the film’s opening. Cast list cheekily includes not only the names of the men aboard the vessel where the docu was filmed, but also the Latin names of the species caught.