Leviathan is an extraordinary collision of genres: an art film made by a pair of British and French anthropologists that works as a stupendous cinematic spectacle. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel – founders of Harvard's radically interdisciplinary Sensory Ethnography Lab – set out to make a film based in New Bedford, the "whaling city" of New England and the historic background for Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick. But they then became increasingly fascinated by the city's contemporary status as a fishing port.
Sailing on an 80ft-foot "dragger", FV Athena, to the Grand Banks fishing grounds of the open Atlantic, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel equipped themselves and the crew with miniature GoPro cameras – new HD technology that has become beloved of documentary film-makers. The result, a dialogue-free 90-minute tumult of long takes and jump-cut editing, throws the viewer into a nausea-making, overturned world so vivid that it's hard to believe its scenes are real and not a clever CGI construction.
With the fish-eye cameras strapped to their heads, the film-makers and crew recorded the raging midnight seas from which are hauled the fish and scallops that will end up on china plates and linen tablecloths in smart restaurants. Remorselessly, they expose every aspect of this visceral business – often conducted in the dark, out of sight of land, on trips lasting up to 18 days. It is a weird otherworld, filled with bug-eyed fish slathering over the decks, clanking rusty chains and hooded figures like medieval torturers, all perpetually doused by the rising Atlantic.
Shrieking gulls plunge up from the dawn-slashed sky in vertiginous, inverted scenes as the cameras tumble upside-down. Starfish float beneath the surface like coral-coloured confetti. On deck, scarred, tattooed men eviscerate fish dragged up from the depths. In one shocking sequence, a skate dangles from a chain as its wings, the only edible parts, are excised – a scene not far from the notorious trade in definned sharks. Meanwhile, an indeterminate heavy-metal track grinds out from a radio, sounding more like the knell of an aquatic apocalypse.
These saturated, sublime images bear little comparison to any other film; rather, they evoke the work of artists such as Winslow Homer and JMW Turner. In fact, by attaching 21st-century cameras to themselves and the crew of the Athena, the directors were re-enacting Turner's legendary feat, when he had his body lashed to the mast of a Harwich boat for four hours to experience a storm at sea face-to-face and thus render it in oil.
Indeed, Turner was a major influence on Melville: Chapter 3 of Moby-Dick, set in a New Bedford inn, opens with a description of a "boggy, soggy, squitchy" painting, "enough to drive a nervous man distracted" – clearly an echo of Turner's whaling scenes, which Melville had seen on his visit to London in 1849, just before writing his book. In turn, the same watery themes run through the current Aquatopia show at Tate St Ives, which is showing Turner's fishy watercolours and his monumental Sunrise with Sea Monsters.
But above all, the brute force of Leviathan is itself a reflection – or perhaps a refraction – of modern-day New Bedford, a city with which I've become familiar on my own work in New England. New Bedford's whaling heyday came in the first half of the 19th century, when the slaughter of thousands of cetaceans was undertaken on voyages lasting up to five years, mired in whale oil, blubber and blood, with men returning sometimes owing money to their masters. Paradoxically, the trade was largely run by peace-loving Quakers (who also gave refuge to runaway slaves – New Bedford was an important stop on the Underground Railroad that allowed many slaves fleeing the South to escape).
The contrast between their placid faith and the bloody butchery which sustained them was just one of the tensions that coursed through this place and its conflicted relationship to the sea. The walls of the local Seamen's Bethel, a timber-framed chapel high overlooking New Bedford's harbour, are still mortared with memorials to men who died at sea – both then, and now, as mirrored by the on-screen "memorial" to lost New Bedford vessels at the end of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's film, testament to the fact that the crew of Athena deal daily with a similar fate.
Like Moby-Dick, Leviathan reflects an industrial reality more than a maritime romance. Just as Ahab's ship was crewed from around the world, so New Bedford's whaling ships brought Azoreans and Portuguese, black Cape Verdeans and others to its port; amazingly, 64% of the population of the eastern seaboard of Massachusetts have Azorean or Portuguese blood. But as whaling declined, fishing took over – an equally deadly occupation, suffering the highest fatalities of any industry in the US.
Despite concerns over diminishing stocks (Leviathan's tip to this ecological concern is a cast list that includes the Latin binomials of every non-human species seen in the film, from Gadus morhua, cod, to Puffinus gravis, the greater shearwater), New Bedford remains the leading US fishing port, with more than three hundred boats landing 0m (£186m) worth of fish and scallops a year. Its cultural mix continues – half its fishermen were born outside the US – and the wharves are still lined with ranks of rusty vessels. This place still has a tough reputation as a maritime version of the Wild West: hard-bitten men I know who have worked there testify to high drug use and arbitary violence in and around the port. It's no coincidence that the 1988 film The Accused, in which the young female character played by Jodie Foster is raped on a billiard table, was set in New Bedford.
In contrast, the historic district of the city – block after block of extravagant mansions built by whaling captains, "harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea" as Melville wrote – has been deemed a National Historical Park. Yet there is little gentrification here. The sense of a working place is explicit, tangible.
And just as you can smell the diesel, the salt water, and the fish guts in Leviathan, so the film's astoundingly kinetic, utterly physical aesthetic reflects this inheritance, one that turned an "academic" exercise into a physical one. "We started off intending to make a film about the sea and fishing, in which one would never see the sea, or any fishing," Castaing-Taylor and Paravel told me. "But once we started going out to the Grand Banks, landlubbing life, even in New Bedford, seemed too familiar, too pat, too predictable. Finally, we decided to jettison land altogether."
That was easier said than done. Although both directors had spent time at sea before, "we hadn't expected Lucien to get so violently sea-sick, more or less knocked out for the first 24 to 48 hours of every voyage". Even then, the anti-emetics caused Castaing-Taylor to see double – which might account for the nightmarish quality of the film. Paravel also damaged her back, necessitating an emergency visit to the hospital.
During shooting, the film-makers kept the same punishing shifts as the boat crew, working 20 out of 24 hours. "One of us often had to tie themselves to the boat, then hold on to to the other, to stabilise the camera and/or stop them falling overboard." They had to avoid being submerged by nets full of fish, crustacean, mud and rocks. "As greenhorns, we also had to take more care than the fishermen not to be hit on the head by flying winches and chains."
All the while, they were reading Moby-Dick, "screaming it out loud at each other, by turns in French and English, on the bow, on the way back into port". Castaing-Taylor and Paravel felt licenced by the book's "universality, monumentalism and unruliness, its thematisation of brutality and violence, between men but especially between humanity and the sea."
Above all, it was the chaotic arrangement of the book – which seems to reflect Melville's madness as much as that of Captain Ahab – that infused their work. The result is a much more than an anthropological exercise. It is an exposition of blood, salt and sweat, the record of a deadly industry carried out on our behalf, far beyond our cosy, everyday lives. Watching it is as near as you will get to the experience itself. I recommend sea-sickness pills – or at least a good tot of bourbon.
• Philip Hoare's books, Leviathan and The Sea Inside, are published by Fourth Estate (philiphoare.co.uk). He will be in conversation with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel at a screening of Leviathan at Tate Modern, London, on 22 November. For details of further screenings of Leviathan visit the film's website.
• This article was amended on Monday 18 November 2013. Film-maker Lucien Castaing-Taylor is British, not American as we said above. This has been corrected.
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