Daguerrotype (aka Le secret de la chambre noire)

France/Japan (2016) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Leave it to Kiyoshi Kurosawa to be different. While other Asian or non-English speaking directors seek the glamour and big budgets of Hollywood to ply the trade beyond their home markets, Japan’s top psychological horror auteur chose France for his overseas cinematic sojourn. And for once, the results aren’t a disappointment.

Before we get into the discussion, an explanation of the title is required. Daguerrotype is an early method of photography involving the lengthy process of exposing silver-plated cooper sheets treated with fumes to light. Depending on the size and lighting of the subject, this could take up to over an hour, meaning the sitter must hold the pose without the slightest movement to avoid blurring, aided by a crude metal support frame

Former fashion photographer Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet) gave up his day job to focus on recreating life-sized Daguerrotype photos with a specially built giant camera. Since Stéphane’s wife passed away, the only person able to sustain the lengthy poses is his daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau), a timid girl who would rather be a botanist. In need of a new assistant, Stéphane hires Parisian Jean (Tahar Rahim).

Meanwhile Stéphane’s manager Vincent (Mathieu Amalric) is secretly plotting with his real estate agent cousin Thomas (Malik Zidi) to coax Stéphane into selling his old mansion to make way for a new eco friendly development project, but Stéphane refuses. Thomas gets Jean onside by offering him a handsome commission if he can get Stéphane to sell – and opportunity for which arises following an unfortunate accident.

Admittedly, there is little in this synopsis that sounds spooky or even close to the sort of storyline one would expect from Kurosawa; then again, fans of his work will know that Kurosawa likes to take his time in revealing his hand and Daguerrotype is no different. In fact, this has possibly one of the slowest builds for a Kurosawa film so patience is very much the key here.

Therein lies much irony in the glacial pacing of the first hour depicting the time consuming photography process under scrutiny but unlike the poor souls posing for a Daguerrotype, the audience has the freedom to shift in their chair if need be. But slow doesn’t mean boring – Kurosawa seeks to educate us on the preparation for a Daguerrotype shoot, thankfully sparing us from watching the entire painful posing period.

But while Stéphane is doggedly obsessed with Daguerrotype not everyone is as enthused – Marie, with her own greenhouse, has scored for a job with a botany company but it is based in Toulouse. Seeing as Jean as her way out, Marie is onboard with the plan to have Stéphane sell the mansion but is so aware of Stéphane’s attachment to the house because of the memories he built with his late wife.

It is with Marie stepping into the role of her late mother for the photos, dressed in the same classical blue ball gown as her mother, and Stéphane’s drunken ramblings to a portrait of his late wife about finally being “immortal”, that the first signs of creepiness appear. It’s a subtle start but the seeds are planted for what transpires later on, causing us to look back, question what we saw earlier, and realise that Kurosawa was playing us from the start.

Stéphane’s mansion is old and seemingly free of mod cons, contemporary décor and furniture – even Marie’s wardrobe possesses a modest vibe from a bygone era – and with silence being the main soundtrack and slightly subdued colour palette, the atmospherics alone denote that this isn’t going to be an ebullient ride. Just by being an antiquated building gives the impression of stepping back in time, symbolically trapping the cast in past/future worlds.

With his weary, haunted look and testy demeanour, Stéphane is hardly a welcoming presence but even learning of his recent loss doesn’t endear him to the audience, hinting that maybe his torment is self-inflicted, his grief guilt ridden. Marie intention to move on is less about her own needs and more about escaping her father; whilst the relationship isn’t visibly strained there is no warmth there.

Kurosawa throws in one of his trademark mid-film shocks and from this a pivotal plot twist imperceptibly seeps out from the aftermath, looming ominously over the remainder of the film but not obliquely so. Unlike Stéphane, as observers, we are at Kurosawa’s mercy and he plays us beautifully in distorting the onscreen reality, skilfully referring to various prior elements to test our powers of observation, notably in Marie’s post-twist behaviour.

By collaborating with French screenwriter Catherine Paillé and dialogue adaptation from Eleonore Mahmoudian, Kurosawa avoids the trap of assuming he can translate his style and idea to France, this his direction and storytelling doesn’t miss a beat; if anything there is a sense of revitalisation to this style that permeates through the film in working with a different set of tools.   

Equally the performances haven’t suffered from an Asian director working with European actors unlike other films with similar cultural crosspollination. Tahar Rahim’s Jean is another believable “everyman” type he is noted for, giving nothing away about where his character is heading, with Olivier Gourmet’s grizzled Stéphane proving a formidable sparring partner.

Constance Rousseau is enigmatically delicate as Marie, the film’s true focal point, demonstrating a dedication and unenviable discipline to the nightmare of the exacting posing scenes. Despite his name value, Mathieu Amalric doesn’t overdo his small support role as Vincent, letting Malik Zidi’s Thomas take the spotlight of smug duplicity instead.

It is entirely possible the pedigree of the French cast will attract many eyes not familiar with Kurosawa to Daguerrotype; it is equally possible Kurosawa’s subtle approach and gently paced unleashing the full force of his brand of psychological horror may not win over any new fans. For the already converted, this is one of his most polished works and the change of scenery, as the cliché goes, has done Kurosawa some good.