That Kiyoshi Kurosawa is so often haphazardly thrown under the umbrella label “J-horror director” does the uniqueness of his cinematic vision a gross disservice. Far from the teen-oriented Ringu, Ju-On and Tomie cycles, Kurosawa’s films are far grittier and more ‘adult’, concerned with earthlier monsters (serial killers are a signature favourite) than the full-throttle Onryō-ism more typical of the category. His international reputation has until recently stemmed in large part from the unparalleled horror-noir Cure (1997), but films including Penance, Journey to the Shore and Creepy have also caught the attention of international audiences and critics. It is perhaps this increase in global recognition that lead Kurosawa to this—a French-language Belgian, Japanese and French co-production—his first film produced outside of Japan. Recalling most strongly in mood and tone his 2006 film Retribution, Daguerrotype is largely unlike much of his other work: it is difficult to classify as a horror or thriller at all, and rather adheres more closely (on its surfaces at least) to 18th-century Gothic romance literature.
Surfaces are a central fascination within Daguerrotype, both aesthetically and conceptually, and the camera lovingly glides through spaces drenched with a faded jewel colour palette reminiscent of aged antique photography. The title refers to a photographic practice invented by Frenchman Louis Daguerre that reached the peak of its popularity in the mid 19th century, where chemicals would treat silver-plated copper plates which would be exposed to light. This process resulted in images quite unlike any other—portraits in particular imbued with an almost ethereal metallic glow—and it is this quality that draws once-successful fashion photographer Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet) away from his career and into his neglected suburban mansion, where he straps his beautiful young daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau) into a ghastly device to keep her perfectly still for the long exposures necessary to achieve his desired results. A troubled man haunted by visions of his deceased wife Denise (Valerie Sibilia), the daguerreotypist hires the inexperienced but eager Jean (Tahar Rahim) to be his assistant. As Jean and Marie’s romantic involvement unfolds on screen, a violent accident thrusts the film’s characters into circumstances as tragic as they are peculiar.
But the narrative may be the least compelling thing about Daguerrotype, despite giving shape to the themes that lie at its core. This is a film that drifts and wanders, urging us to become aware on a sensory level the very qualities of the surfaces its own camera brushes over. Films about photography—from Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) and Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) to Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978) and Ab-Normal Beauty (Pang, 2004)—demand we call into play a conscious awareness of the mechanics of what we are seeing on screen. We are encouraged to recognise the images as the result of a photographic process, prompting us to ask questions about what is being filmed, how it is being films and (most of all) why it is being filmed. It is from this perspective that critics who have dismissed Daguerrotype as cold or detached ignore precisely that the almost clinical arms-length Kurosawa adopts to tell his tale is vital to his broader mission: an exploration of not only our emotional and psychological relationships to photography, but of the cinematic image itself. The indexicality of the photographic image is inherent to the truth claims that so much of cinema’s effect is broadly reliant upon—we believe things to be true because the photographic image carries with it the implicit suggestion that it is a thing that could have happened, as fantastic or as impossible as it may be. 1
The script is hardly subtle: at numerous points throughout the film, dialogue makes reference to Stéphane confusing the living and the dead (and the real and the fantastic) through his obsession with photography. In one of the film’s most memorable yet functionally obsolete moments, an unnamed dying woman in her later years visits Stéphane to have a daguerreotype taken as a kind of pre-death momento mori. “Death is an illusion” she tells him, reassuring him that he should take comfort in this fact. Elsewhere, Jean significantly tells Marie that he “feels like none of this is true.” “Is this reality? Where’s the boundary?”, she asks in reply. In the photography-centred world of Daguerrotype, surfaces constantly overpower the depths—it is a film about the ephemerality of representation transcending the very materiality of the things it seeks to represent.
Although daguerrotypes are not a kind of moving image technology, the omnipresent threat of the male artist-visionary in the shape of Stéphane recalls Alexandre Astruc’s notion of the caméra-stylo or “camera-pen”, a central tenet of auteur theory that suggests the director writes with light in a way reminiscent of how the author writes with a pen. There is an persistent although never clearly articulated gender divide between who inflicts representational violence in the world of Daguerrotype and who suffers on its receiving end: this is quite literally Marie and Denise, both strapped agonisingly into Stéphane’s posing contraption, which vividly resembles a medieval torture device.
Daguerrotype is until its final moments a deeply poetic Gothic allegory of cinema’s own conceptual and literal play of light and dark, reality and illusion. If it has a pronounced weakness, it is one shared with many other Kurosawa films: the unsatisfying indifference of their endings. Like Creepy also released last year, here too Kurosawa finishes with nothing much more than a shrug of the shoulders, a muttered “whatever” as the film ends. This may substantially weaken the film that precedes it for some, but so predominant a tendency is it across Kurosawa’s filmography that it feels as much a conscious ambivalence to the entire notion of ‘satisfying conclusions’ as it does a simple failure of storytelling. Either way, while not wholly unpredictable, Daguerrotype is a film whose parts far transcend its final minutes. What remains long after the film has ended isn’t the whys-and-wherefores of its concluding narrative reveal, but the more overwhelming, less easy to define sense of inevitability that stains its unique and tragic collision of surfaces and depths, illusions and realities.