Japanese writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first European production is, for better and (mainly) for worse, a film far out of its time. Though it takes place in the present day, its naïve emotional attitudes and molasses-slow pacing (more charitable viewers might deem it “hypnotic”) seem imported from a different era. Change the language and setting, but keep the overall tone, and this could be a gothic Hollywood melodrama from the 1930s or ’40s. The way the film prizes long-term contemplation over instant gratification is also admirable, but it proceeds with humdrum literalness.
Kurosawa is probably best known in the West for 2001’s Pulse, a moody supernatural thriller about ghosts haunting the real world via the Internet. (It screened in Toronto a few days prior to 9/11, after which the film’s post-apocalyptic finale seemed especially prescient.) The France-set Daguerrotype is also about specters, both literal and technological, but here Kurosawa looks back instead of forward, to the cumbersome mid-19th-century photographic process—employing silver plates, mercury vapors, and lengthy exposure times—that gives the film its English title. (The original French title, Le Secret de la Chambre Noir translates to The Secret of the Darkroom.)
Daguerrotyping is a niche art, though that hasn’t stopped Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), a temperamental recluse with a ingenious compositional eye, from practicing it in his decaying countryside estate. Though he reluctantly does fashion photography to make ends meet, his real obsession is shooting life-size daguerrotypes with his daughter, Marie (Constance Rousseau)—seemingly as penance, and perhaps as an offering, to his deceased wife, who’s ghost may haunt the mansion grounds. Complicating matters is Stéphane’s new assistant, Jean (Tahar Rahim), who falls in love with Marie, then hatches a plot to extort half-a-million euros—a nest egg for the future—from his employer.
Daguerrotype is reminiscent, in some ways, of William Dieterle’s 1948 romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie, in which an otherworldly muse inspires a struggling artist, minus that film’s hot-blooded emotionalism and its obsessive visual schema. There’s an inspired touch here and there, like Stéphane’s encounter with his dead wife in the mansion greenhouse, filmed so that the images that favor him are suffused with terror and the images that favor her are chillingly ethereal and calm. And Kurosawa and cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine have fun staging the central, single-shot murder scene, which involves a creaky basement staircase, an unseen apparition and a tumble from great heights that recalls a memorable suicide sequence in Pulse. But Daguerrotype is otherwise as creaky as its telegraphed plot twists, not a mesmerizing dream so much as the enervating, and dispiriting, conception of one.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.