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Cold Malicious Waves

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Leviathan – showing in cinemas from tomorrow – is a portrait of a commercial fishing trawler, its crew, their haul and the ocean that surrounds them. Made by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, Leviathan strands its audience at sea, hurls you around and then slowly drowns you – first in fish guts, then in a dark watery abyss.

The directors, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, were inspired by Moby-Dick; they read aloud from the novel on deck while filming. Their footage was captured by dozens of waterproof digital GoPro cameras positioned all over the 80-foot Athena. Most of them were fixed to the heads of the fishermen and the filmmakers, but Castaing-Taylor and Paravel also found more unusual perspectives: on the mast, on nets, on poles dangled overboard. Over a two-month period, following the crew’s gruelling work schedule, the directors recorded the ‘deep blue bottomless soul’ of the North Atlantic, the ‘cold, malicious waves’ that Melville sailed aboard whale ships.

Dedicated to the many New Bedford ships lost at sea, the 86-minute film begins and ends in darkness. Terra firma is nowhere to be seen throughout and there’s a long wait before daylight appears or a human face comes into focus. After making Drifters, his 1929 film about the North Sea herring industry, John Grierson made a list of seafaring documentary dos and don’ts: Keep Steady, Remember to Focus, Keep the Horizon Horizontal, Do Not Shoot Without Direct Sunlight. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor violate most of them. The perspective lurches every few seconds. Horizons are wonky and wobbly. Blood and water on the lens become part of the blurred, abstract compositions of nets, chains, hands and decapitated fish. And if the visuals weren’t queasy and incomprehensible enough, the tempestuous soundtrack – a commotion of distorted and amplified noises recorded on board – provides no mooring whatsoever.

The fish are unrecognisable and grotesque, puking their own tongues. Human skin – bags, tattoos, scars, wrinkles – gets the same forensic treatment as scales and fins. With no interviews or explanations and few audible conversations, the film is essentially wordless. The long fleshy close-ups testify to hard lives, but Paravel and Castaing-Taylor aren’t interested in the individual experiences of the fisherman. Their focus is on the labour itself and the sense of being there.

Leviathan has been called a horror film, the Athena a floating version of the slaughterhouse in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. But the exhilarating, disorienting passages at the end, in which the camera seems to be gasping for air as it plunges in and out of the water, capturing gulls and sting rays from every angle, suggest a closer ancestor: the city symphony. The camera hurtles along on a phantom ride through a vast, bustling, unknown world – but a drowned rather than a manmade one.

Where, what or who the sea monster is, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor don’t say. The ship looks and sounds like one (and is one perhaps in the Hobbesian sense, too), as does the thrashing ocean. But stay past the credits – the Latin names of the fish are listed like one of Melville’s cetological digressions – and in the final shot, it looks as if the tiny Athena and its bobbing lights are being viewed from the bottom of the sea, glimpsed from the wreck of one of the lost vessels whose names have just appeared in the credits, or even by the Leviathan itself.

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