Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/20
World premiere: 9 August, 2012, Locarno International Film Festival

One finds that Leviathan is commonly described as a documentary, which is almost certainly for the reason that there's not anywhere else to put it. And it does, in its fashion, document: the cameras (tiny, unobtrusive digital jobs) are set up to record, and things happen in front of them that are unplanned by the filmmakers, and would have happened the same way if the filmmakers were not there. It is, in fact, a documentary to precisely the same degree that Leaving the Lumière Factory is a documentary, and on basically the same topic: working people going on about their business, though in the case of the 1895 film, their workday is done, while the film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel covers the entire workday, and only ends its 87 minutes with shots of people wrapping up and relaxing..

Also, the workday depicted is somewhat more exciting in this case, as Leviathan is basically a ride-along with the crew of a North Atlantic fishing vessel, and if we know one thing from Deadliest Catch, it's that fishing vessels are the most drama-packed places on God's earth. Although the setting is the only point of overlap between that show and this movie, which is wholly unconcerned with human element of that hardcore fishing action, instead attending to the sounds, shapes, lighting, and colors of the boat. It's awfully like Castaing-Taylor's previous feature, Sweetgrass, which looked at the lives of Montana shepherds using a similar aesthetic of long takes, minimal dialogue, no effort to dig into the psychology of the people involved, and a highly synthetic soundtrack made up of natural sounds pumped up and heightened to the point of aural impressionism, such that it's difficult to say if the image or the audio communicates the "primary" level of meaning in the completed film, though of course it's the way that the two layers complement one another that's actually important.

The two films are similar enough, in fact, that even in its best moments, Leviathan has a significant "been there" feeling, which is sort of unfair in all ways - it's not like there have been a dozen Sweetgrass knockoffs in the last two years, and the tone of the new movie is so completely different that calling it a simple retread would be completely wrong. If, in the main, Sweetgrass is a somber movie, Leviathan is a chaotic, violent one; tapping into broadly the same thematic wheelhouse - the relationship between Man and the nature he wants to control - the new film is a great deal darker in its pursuit of that theme, sometimes literally: the stretched-out opening sequence in the pre-dawn black begins with the roaring of the ocean and only occasional flecks of some object which is briefly caught in the beam of the boat's light, slowly coalescing into more and more concrete imagery emerging from the darkness in short and then longer flashes. It's like watching the fishing boat being painfully birthed from the primordial night, surrounded by the angry sea.

Throughout the movie, the raging sound of water will be a virtually-constant companion, and it is this above all that separates Leviathan from Sweetgrass, which was filled with mountain winds, which however loud, were infinitely more soothing and peaceable. Peace is not on the table in this movie dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the fishing industry out of New Bedford, Massachusetts: whether it's finding new and exciting places to place their camera that emphasise the constant movement of sea travel - on multiple occasions, the camera is mounted to a rig right at the ocean's surface, constantly being plunged into and ripped back out of the water, with the soundtrack heaving back and forth in concert - or just training the camera for several unblinking minutes on the fish heads being tossed on the deck, gently sliding this way or that as the boat rocks, the directors' vision in this movie is to focus on the suffering at the point where human behavior and the natural world of the sea intersect. Nor is it always the humans perpetrating the suffering: in what I am tempted to call the film's signature shot, the camera is pointed at a flock of sea birds diving to the water's surface picking chunks of dead fish out, and as the camera, just at the surface, is in among those chunks, some of them start attacking the camera itself, in a frenzy of avian horror that makes Hitchcock look like a cheap poser.

Regardless of how original the aesthetic is, the film's combination of startling visuals from all the unseen corners of a fishing vessel with the constant rush of water and hum of engines on the soundtrack, in service of a non-hectoring theme of how difficult it is for humans and prey animals to interact, all contribute to make Leviathan one hell of a movie, even if, when compared directly to Sweetgrass - one of the very best movies I've seen in the 2010s - it's just a tiny hair worse. The biggest problem with it, by far, is that it ends on its weakest moment. And a long, lingering moment it is - that, in fact, is what makes it not quite work, as there is an extravagant long shot of a man, at the end of his day, dozing off in front of the TV that kind of justifies itself, though stacked next to an inordinately, almost Tarr-esque shot of birds flying that officially closes out the movie, it feels less like the filmmakers are trying to communicate a meaning that's easy to "get" in a third of the time or even less, than they are trying to push the movie as close to 90 minutes as they can manage (and still falling three minutes short). It's not horribly far out of the film's long-take aesthetic in the first place, but it's the only time that those long takes feel arbitrary, and it's a damn shame that this generally great film sees fit to end on its weakest moment; for this sucks out of the film an energy disproportionate to how bad that moment actually is.