Lars von Trier shot his 2006 comedy “The Boss Of It All” with a camera strapped to a robot. The method was called “Automavision”: After von Trier lined up his shots, the computer system adjusted them randomly — reframing the image so actors’ body parts were cut off, slightly adjusting the angle so the lighting was different, going out of focus, etc. The film was thus shot by no one – no cinematographer is credited – and the decidedly unpolished look was meant to give importance to an intentionally thin narrative.
Von Trier’s visual randomness has nothing on “Leviathan,” a doc-of-sorts from Lucien Castiang-Taylor and Verena Peravel. Castiang-Taylor’s previous film was “Sweetgrass,” a look at sheep and shepherds whose approach was decidedly minimalist. “Leviathan” goes even deeper into abstraction. If we learned very little about the life of shepherds (and their sheep), you learn nothing about the commercial fishers on relentlessly rocking boats in the North Atlantic.
There is no narration, no music, not even context, and what dialogue we hear is indecipherable above the waves, squeaky rust and precipitation. Castiang-Taylor reportedly spent the majority of the shoot seasick, but there’s scant footage that seems shot by humans anyway. Most of “Leviathan” was “shot” with the GoPro, a tiny, durable, waterproof camera favored by extreme sports types. These were attached to the sides of fishermen or thrown out to sea. Images are blurred into visual vomit and frequently impossible to parse. Which way is up is often not apparent and, whereas dead fish frequently crowd into the lens en masse, birds tend to enter the images as white or black spots that could, at first blush, be anything.
If “Leviathan” is visually perspectiveless, tied to the random movements of the people and objects holding the cameras, it’s perspectiveless in another way. There’s no overt message, and Peravel has said even she doesn’t know what the film is “about.” This is a good thing, and at its best, which is most of the time, “Leviathan” is a purely avant-garde work – a flurry of unrecognizable colors and shapes. The few times it seems to be saying something — and “Leviathan” often does for fish what Georges Franju’s notorious 1949 doc “Blood of the Beasts” did for cows — are the film at its worst. Relatively speaking, of course.