Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: LEVIATHAN (2013, UK/USA/France)

dir. Luicen Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel

In the beginning there was nothing: that is, except flickers of light, the jarring clank of chains, and a splash of seawater. These altogether suggest little but anxiety and uncertainty with everything else engulfed in darkness. The shots that follow, then, reveal more identifiable images and sounds, which belong to a fishing trawler, and to fishermen hard at work aboard it. The immediacy of those images and sounds is palpable; the whole labor process, from trawling to heading to gutting fish, and its product, manifest themselves in (extreme) close-ups, accompanied by the reverberating screech of machinery. Without providing context for the events that unfold later on, Leviathan, a vérité observation of life at sea by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, plunges right away into those fishermen’s ordinary day.

What the movie seemingly strives to be is not so much an informative, cautionary tale as a value-free recording of the said events. Its shots of the hustle and bustle on board do not quite coalesce into some meaningful narrative. On the contrary, it seems to actively resist any attempt to read anything else into it, much less to contextualize it. It’s as if you’re simply meant to see the fishermen working away at their catch over the course of a day, and little else. There's nothing structurally predetermined about this movie, with no apparent ulterior motives. Shots are fragmentary and spliced together in the order in which objects randomly show up in the viewfinder. Perhaps, or at least on the surface, the filmmakers intended to capture everything out there as it is, without having their subjectivity interfere with the creative process. Since they didn’t want to miss a thing happening on the vessel or in its surroundings, they mounted a number of small cameras in every conceivable place. The resultant images are shots from as varied angles as possible, thereby begetting disorientation and making it almost impossible to determine each scene’s geography.

Such fluidity and unpredictability in camera movements, contingency in the arrangement of shots, and casualness in the film’s depiction of commercial fishing should not be deemed to represent, or justify if you will, the total absence of authorial intent, however. Even apart from the stationary long take in the movie's second half, in which the face of a fisherman watching TV exhibits anything but excitement and gratification after a long day of work, the images in Leviathan at the outset—the rattling chains, the trawl bulging with fish, the men toiling away, and the unforgiving waters of the ocean—call to mind the antithetical, but ultimately ambivalent, relationship between these men and the environment on which they depend for their livelihood and simultaneously in which they constantly put their lives on the line.

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