Whatever the opposite of jump-scare horror is, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a master of it. He specialises in what might be called the shadow-scare, or maybe whisper-scare: rather than overwhelming his audience with sudden sensory barrages, he pares everything back, creating a haze of hyper-sensitised dread that makes you crave a dumb thud or shunt just to break the panic.
Daguerreotype is the first film Kurosawa (director of Pulse and Journey to the Shore, and no relation of his famous namesake Akira) has shot outside of his native Japan. But it’s not so much an exercise in exporting his particular sensibility to a new locale – in this case, the outskirts of Paris – as it is one in finding ways to galvanise it with another style of ghost story.
Different though their manners and mechanisms may be, the French fantastique and Japanese kaidan both ultimately plumb the same subterranean lake of essential anxieties and fears – and the sense of two traditions in swirling synchrony makes Daguerreotype feel simultaneously strange and familiar in a way that makes your flesh creep, whichever angle you come at it from. It’s the uncanny valley of horror technique.
The film begins with Jean Malassis (Tahar Rahim) plodding through the French capital on his way to a job interview. Since his breakout role in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Rahim’s aura of heartthrobbishness has sometimes proven hard to mask, but he’s cunningly restyled here as an earnest dupe – even his haircut seems guileless.
The venue for Jean’s interview is a mouldering mansion in the middle of an otherwise redeveloped banlieue – it’s like a patch of mould inexplicably flourishing in the middle of a concrete plaza. Its owner is Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), a famous but jaded photographer who’s retreated from the fashion world to work on daguerreotypes, and is looking for an assistant.
The titular form of early photography was invented in the early 1800s, and is created with enormous silver plates and a camera the size of a sarcophagus. Models have to pose for an hour or longer for the picture to stick – and even then, “atmospheric disturbances appear on the image”, Stéphane ominously cautions at one point, before photographing a deceased baby in its funeral shroud.
But even with living subjects, Stéphane carries out the image-making process with the shadowy solemnity of an occult ritual, naturally in the mansion’s enormous cellar – another one of those great, decaying Kurosawan environments where tension festers and blooms in every crack.
I say ‘living subjects’, plural, but Stéphane only has one: his 22-year-old daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau), who dresses in period garb and is held in place for the poses with a piece of terrifying apparatus, her arms and back clamped in braces, her head pinched at the back between giant scorpion pincers.
Her eyes are huge and sometimes flicker nervously, which combined with her physical stillness has a supremely creepy effect: she’s like a flesh-and-blood version of one of those haunted paintings that follows you around the room. No wonder Jean is bewitched.
Stéphane claims to be returning to photography’s most primal and essential form, but for Marie something more worrying is going on: as she says to Jean, “he can no longer tell the difference between the living and the dead.”
She should know. Stéphane’s obsession with capturing Marie’s image is related to his complex feelings towards his dead wife, the details of which Kurosawa takes time to fully unpack but which from the off provides the raw material for most of the film’s most unnerving sequences.
In one, he looks out at the lawn and sees his wife apparently standing there in the same blue dress worn by Marie, and the old window-pane’s ripples give her body an ectoplasmic lack of fixity that’s eerier than any special effect.
Contributing to Stéphane’s mental strife are ongoing attempts by a property developer (Malik Zidi) to purchase his mansion, who entices Jean into his confidence with help from Stéphane’s former colleague (an amusingly bumptious MathieuAmalric), and promises him a lucrative commission if he can somehow produce the necessary signed paperwork. This in turn takes its toll on Jean, his blossoming love affair with Marie, and even the fabric of the film itself.
After a Hitchcock-flavoured interlude involving a very Vertigo-like car journey and Grégoire Hetzel’s string-laden score going full Bernard Herrmann, comes the shivery understanding that what we’re seeing is no longer a representation of the rational, unhaunted world – if such a place ever existed.
You’ll need patience for it to work on you, but all effort’s repaid tenfold, thanks to Kurosawa’s murmur-soft, immaculate craft and a trio of gorgeous central performances: Gourmet railing against the world and his memories, Rahim’s slow-drip, well-intentioned corruption, and Rousseau’s genuinely otherworldly presence – and for once, a critic is using that word to mean something more than blonde and willowy. Take it from Stéphane: even if you daren’t move, atmospheric disturbances are assured.
Daguerreotype screened at the Tokyo Film Festival 2016, and will be released in 2017.