Navigating without the sail of a voiceover, as it were, Leviathan has practically no spoken words, bar some incomprehensible messages bawled out by unidentified trawlermen. Aside from that, there is a TV voiceover sequence down in the galley, talking about, guess what, fishermen at sea.
Another unnamed trawlerman, seemingly oblivious to the camera, is idly watching an unseen television set, taking a break at the table after his lunch of what seems to have been cheese and cucumber. No fish in evidence here.
He is barely able to absorb the words of the suave male voiceover artist telling him what he already knows about his own life. Eventually, the tatooed, catatonic crewman begins to nod off, dark circles beneath his bleary eyes, utterly exhausted. No surprise that he has been knocked into a kind of stupor by the fiercely demanding, mind-numbingly repetitive work he and his mates do, day in day out.
Looking at Leviathan, you cannot imagine how anyone could work on a trawler for more than a year, unless one could vary the limited amount of tasks available with regular frequency.
In Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s film, the trawler appears to be in fishing grounds at some distance from the coast of New Bedford, USA. The film opens in pitch darkness, in what might be a Force 10 gale. The rust-bucket-style trawler in question is lumbering and creaking in a wild arena of seething waves.
Curtains of sea-water and/or swirling rain drench the see-sawing craft, as its chains are guided remotely into the hold, pulling nets full of gaping, open-mouthed and sumptuous fleshy fish. The vast, heaving catch flops on to the floor, the fish breathing their last breaths, the dimly-discerned figures of the trawler-men manipulating the whole exercise in conditions of poor visibility.
There must be a system going on here, you think, unknown to you in its arcane practices, but to this landlubber’s eyes, it seems like a kind of helpless chaos. Later, we see one of them swiftly gathering oysters by hand into a crate, two men working silently side by side, quickly splitting the shells with a knife, human machines. Or they gut and chop off the fish heads, working in a blue waft of their own cigarette smoke. The cigarettes burn away thus between their lips, once lit, utterly impossible to grasp any more.
What is fascinating is that there is very little conversation, maybe because there are various nationalities involved, maybe the crew is new. You cringe a little when you see the generous bits of left-over turbot that are casually kicked back into the sea. There is many a posh household whose residents would gladly take just one of those flat but succulent turbot cut-offs and cook a luxurious meal for four. There may even be the odd Michelin -starred restaurant that would be glad of such leftovers.
Credits supply the list of crew names, and among them is one Irishman, named Declan Conneely. Leviathan is like a work song or a sea shanty without words but it is also ravishing visual art, poetry in wild, aqueous motion.