The sea has often been a source of inspiration for filmmakers over the years. Films like Jaws, The Perfect Storm and The Poseidon Adventure capturing something of the rage and isolation of this watery foe.
It is easy to see why a director might choose to make a film set out in the ocean. Stories often work best when characters are brought together in close quarters, and a boat is just about perfect for this. Then there is the common enemy of the sea, or what it contains, which can also cause immediate drama. Something which is also captured in television shows like The Deadliest Catch.
Leviathan is also about the sea. However, it is nothing like any of the works I have mentioned so far, and unlikely to be like anything you have ever seen before. It is a documentary, although without a clear narrative we can grab onto.
Instead, it is a series of clips all filmed on a boat with the intent of giving you a realistic and non-romanticised impression of what it is like to be a modern fisherman.
Leviathan opens at night with two fisherman pulling on chains as the boat bobs back and worth in the waves. The two men, who are not often shot and whose speech is muffled, pull on chains to try and bring a net back in.
Shots like this continue, although often with no humans to be seen. For example, later on the camera moves in and out of the water parallel to a school of fish, giving you the impression that it is attached to one of these sea creatures. There is also a point at which the camera seems to take the form of a dead fish schloshing along on the deck of the boat as heads and other pieces of fish move back and forth with the motion of the boat.
And basically that’s the whole film.
Later on we do get more of a human element to the piece. We see a lot of fish get killed. Whether that’s getting their heads removed, shells taken off, or insides cut out. Hardcore fans of Finding Nemo are probably best advised to avoid this picture.
However, there is little to no attempt to get to know the individuals on the boat. There are no interviews, and little conversation. Essentially they could be any fisherman on any boat in any part of the world.
A film like this is one I can appreciate on an intellectual level. I understand that it is giving me an impression of what it is really like to be on a boat, around a boat, or even watching a boat from afar. I also understand that there is a point to be made about the way we always put humans (or anthropomorphised characters) at the centre of film, making us out to be much more important than we are to the universe (or even simply to the sea).
However, for me, for any film to work, it must captivate me on more than simply an intellectual level. It must be in some way transcendent so that I am gripped by the level of artistry and creativity on display. Whether because I felt seasick for much of the film, or some other reason, this was not the case for Leviathan.
For me, it is the type of film I could happily watch a ten/fifteen minute clip from in an art museum, without having to commit myself to the full ninety minute version. I know others will disagree with this, it did after all win the award for Best British Feature Film at EIFF this year, but I was not as captivated as I felt I should have been.
Would I recommend this film then? I would say its audience is probably limited to those with a very deep interest in film and art. It is described by the filmmakers as a “sensory experience” and ultimately this description probably tells you whether or not this is the type of film for you.