Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, 2012)

Leviathan begins with a quote from the book of Job, and its press kit emphasizes that it takes place in the waters in which the novel Moby-Dick is set. Viewers waiting for Captain Ahab or a white wale to show up may be disappointed, however. The behemoth in this film is not the prey but the ship itself, an industrialized giant full of chains, pulleys, steel, and gears–one that dwarfs the men who ride in and work on it even as it shelters them from the expanse of the rolling deep.

Leviathan is not a narrative film. It mostly eschews dialogue, although there are a few snippets of words caught in between the ambient noise of machine and nature that is the film’s soundtrack. Using a dozen cameras, some of them from angels so singular one can’t help wondering where, exactly, they were, the film nevertheless presents a unified picture of life aboard the ship.

Many of the images are, or should be, familiar enough that it is suprising they have such totemic power: live fish drawn up from a net flail and flop in final spasm of life, cable winds in circles, the prow of a ship splits the water. In one of the film’s more chaotic and iconic images, swarms of birds hover in and around the field of view, making the viewer feel as though he is in a Hitchcok film. If the images are not exactly new, the editing and, particularly, the sound create a new experience of them.

That experience was somewhat more somber, less chaotic than I expected. For me, the tone of Melville’s novel was infused throughout by the thinness between life and death. Nature, whether in the form of the white whale or the frenzy of sharks feeding on the carcasses of its brethren, is wild and untamed, separated from man by only a rope or a rowboat. When a crew member in the novel nods off in the sun, he falls from the crow’s nest as is swallowed by an indifferent ocean. Sometimes the thin line between life and death is temporal rather than geographical.

That sense of danger, that any moment might bring the unexpected to tip the precarious balance between control and chaos, was largely missing from the film for me. In its place there is a kind of industrial relentlessness that is oppressive in its constancy if not its intensity. One understands intellectually, abstractly, how the experience illuminates some larger themes, particularly how man’s relationship with nature has been changed by technology. That there are some, too, who may be content with the aesthetics of the experience regardless of any perceived grader meaning, I also acknowledge. I probably needed at least some narrative to accentuate the striking visuals.

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