Onscreen/Offscreen: The incomprehensible terror of Daguerreotype

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      In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype—the first publicly used photographic process. Just two decades later, the technology had been superseded by cheaper, more readily available methods. The history of the now-defunct technology isn’t the subject of Daguerrotype, the first French-language feature by Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but it certainly informs the film’s unique fixations. “In this day and age, whether it's a digitally or analog way, shooting a movie itself is becoming an anachronism,” said the Japanese master in an interview on the film. It's a telling statement, especially for a filmmaker who so often deals in the stuff of myth and in the realm of the supernatural. Although he’s best known for his horror efforts—Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), foremost—all his films are, to an extent, perpetually haunted—by grief, violence, death, trauma. And Daguerrotype is no different. But, as its title suggests, it's a film also infused with the phantom anxieties of no less than the medium—the artform—itself. What Kurosawa often asks of the audience, then, is simple belief. What his films deliver—well, that’s something else entirely.

      Alternately titled Le Secret de la chambre noire (The Secret of the Dark Chamber) and The Woman on the Silver Plate, Daguerrotype played to generally negative reviews at the Toronto International Fim Festival in 2016, though it’s now receiving a belated VOD release. In many ways, its reception was unsurprising. For one thing, Kurosawa had already released another (admittedly superior) film earlier that year, in the form of Creepy, a Zodiac-like detective investigation churned through the hallways of Japanese horror and the dungeons of German Expressionism. For another, Daguerrotype is a ghost story, albeit a rather non-traditional one, which inevitably creates expectations that the film never quite fulfills. But there's also the fact that the film itself is rather anachronistic. If it feels like a throwback to the heyday of Japanese horror in the 1990s, that’s partly because Kurosawa first conceived of the script over two decades prior, when the (sub)genre was most prominent. Originally intended to be a British production, the film—rescued from its years in limbo—opens in the tradition of gothic horror, following Jean (Tahar Rahim, from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet [2009]) as he takes a job in an enormous gated mansion in the French countryside. Its owner: Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), a sought-after fashion photographer who has, since the death of his wife, retreated into seclusion to pursue the “true” art of daguerrotype photography, with his daughter, Marie (Constance Rousseau), as his chief subject.

      It’s a supremely promising setup: lingering grief woven in with the obsessiveness of artistic pursuit, the physical and mental demands of the daguerreotype process itself (which requires the model to be completely still for long periods of time) serving as a kind of Faustian bargain—immortality (in art) at the cost of emptying oneself (in life). And it’s a distinct pleasure to be enveloped in Kurosawa’s typical mastery of space, especially in the foreign setting of the countryside mansion: his camera lingers in the shadows, tracing various geometries—a spiral staircase; a darkened basement; a poisoned greenhouse—with a characteristically distant, unemphatic gaze. He works in coded colours: the stately royal blue of the voluminous dress Marie poses in, which had belonged to Stéphane’s deceased wife; browns, reds and oranges for Marie herself; and almost uniformly black for Jean. Likewise, the actors occupy specific registers—Rousseau’s fragility, Rahim’s quiet intensity, and Gourmet’s volatility—which Kurosawa employs to impressive effect throughout.

      As discussed by various critics and scholars, notably David Bordwell, Kurosawa’s formal approach has always been defined by a kind of de-emphasis of presentation: there’s no underlining of what’s significant in each composition, only observation precisely calibrated to necessitate a cognitive leap for the viewer, as well as provide an unshakeable sense of off-kilter dread. Here, filtered shafts of light become a spectral presence, a wooden staircase becomes a harbinger of fate; at its best, the film moves insidiously, hypnotically forward—flush with beauty, dread and cruel inevitability. The horror is rarely, if ever, predicated on unexpected intrusions into the frame; it’s almost always built on what’s fully within sight. What Kurosawa deals in is not the horror of the unknown, but of the unknowable—the terror of a closed mystery, of an expressionless gaze. That blankness is, after all, the essential ingredient of Cure (1997), Kurosawa’s psychological thriller about a series of gruesome crimes, all unknowingly committed by individuals somehow compelled to murder. And few films have explored the terror of the image as unforgettably and decisively as Pulse (2001), in which digital screens—and the act of observation itself—become veritable gateways for the supernatural.

      If that paints Kurosawa to be exclusively a horror filmmaker, it should be noted that his interests (and talents) are far more protean, a fact reflected by an eclectic filmography that includes: Bright Future (2003), a singular, jellyfish-filled take on the urban tale of disaffected youth; Tokyo Sonata (2008), a straightforward, but affecting domestic drama; or Journey to the Shore (2015), equal parts romance and ghost story. Likewise, Daguerrotype intertwines its sense of dread with a stately, almost classical lyricism, shifting—or flowing, really—from gothic horror into a kind of Hitchcockian doomed romance (an impression abetted by the soaring strings of Grégoire Hetzel’s score which has more than a dash of Bernard Herrmann).

      If Kurosawa’s films often draw ire for their more risible, nonsensical elements—and there's some of that here, mostly in the form of an extended real-estate deal—that's in part because they so often shift and float between genres, pushing the edge of comprehension all the while. In that sense, then, the essential character of Kurosawa’s filmography may be the psychologist in Cure, who's determined—as the audience likely is—to understand, above all, to make sense of recurring patterns of violence and trauma, to find meaning beneath the malevolence and horror, to assure himself that there’s a purpose, a motivation for it all. What Kurosawa’s cinema presents, in essence, is genre itself as a way of processing information, of metabolizing feeling and dealing with pain—a way of envisioning the world in order to, somehow, comprehend it. (The shape-shifting sci-fi machinations of Before We Vanish, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes earlier this year, may thus be the densest exploration of that idea.) And so, if Kurosawa’s films frighten us, it’s not because of the depths of meaning beneath their presentation, it’s in the incomprehensible terror embalmed in each instant—The Secret of the Dark Chamber; The Woman on the Silver Plate; Daguerrotype—the ontological horror of the photographic image. After all, there are few things more frightening than what’s right before your eyes.

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