Thursday, May 09, 2013

Out of the Murky Depths: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan (2012)

Abstracted from the oily murk and enveloping shadow of the swirling North Atlantic surf, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan (2012) is an accidental work of the avant-garde, an Anticipation of the Night-style "lyrical" documentary that does not so much transport its spectator to its accursed seascape as it offers a tactile impression of the hard labor performed inside the tempest. A film filled finally with viscous textures and violent camera movements, Leviathan begins and ends in darkest nautical night, in the funereal sea from which the initially unformed flecks of light and empty canvas will suddenly give way to the ship's sparely illuminated deck and the sky's gliding, scavenging gulls. On board the storm-tossed ship, the saltwater spray covers Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's camera lens, thus calling our attention to its discrete physical presence within the larger adversarial setting. Leviathan's muffled mic work provides a similar sense of separation, of recording objects existing within but materially distinct from their host environs. In the end, this is the opposite of Flahertian documentary, of a world presented as it appears before an invisible apparatus: Leviathan instead emphasize the embodied presence of its camera operators (for whom the apparatus at times becomes an added appendage) as well as the mind-twisting impossibility of its more soaring set-ups. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's film foremost attends to the laborious act and process of shooting its antagonistic Atlantic environment.

As a narrative of perilous professional life, Leviathan opposes itself implicitly to The Deadliest Catch, the long-form Discovery Channel documentary that purposefully provides one of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's clearest passages of recorded audio. Most importantly, Leviathan lacks The Deadliest Catch's voice-over narration, which in the case of the cable hit serves to delineate the persons and personalities that the television series chronicles. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take a far less clarifying approach, frequently presenting their human subjects in close-in fragments of wind-scarred and ink-stained flesh. Leviathan by comparison is attuned to surfaces and is alive to the semi- and in-animate, to the topless mermaid painted on the captain's forearm, to the dancing multi-colored netting that hangs off the side of the ship's deck and to the piles of dying fish whose impact is as much tactile and olfactory as it is visual. The latter content also contributes to a horror-picture subtext (one that the filmmakers marry with the aesthetics of metal) that finds even more conspicuous representation in the half-alive floating fish-heads and in the cascades of blood and innards issuing from the ocean vessel.

Then again, Leviathan is less aggressive in its moments of horror than it is in its sequences of slow-cinema: a post-credit long-take passage continues well beyond the eclipse of the visual, while the earlier Deadliest Catch set-piece concludes with the same tattooed sailor falling asleep before the camera. In this latter moment, Leviathan pokes fun at not only its infinitely less adventurous cable point-of-departure, but also its own anticipated slumberous effect on its spectators. For many in Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's audience, however, Leviathan is a truly invigorating experience, a new form of experimental documentary - much more in fact than Castaing-Taylor's conventionally contemplative, if still successful Sweetgrass (2009) - that makes for one of the year's richest aesthetic and ontological encounters.

This review was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad. Cinema Guild is currently distributing Leviathan in the United States.

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