'Daguerreotype' ('Le Secret de la chambre noire'): Film Review | TIFF 2016

Daguerrotype Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A Kurosawa ghost story — but in French.

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's first film shot outside of Japan, 'Daguerreotype' ('Le Secret de la chambre noire') stars Francophone actors Tahar Rahim, Olivier Gourmet and Mathieu Amalric.

Though he has made terrific mainstream dramas, such as Tokyo Sonata and Shokuzai/Penance, when Asian film lovers hear the name Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the first thing they’ll likely think of is the gifted Japanese director’s ghost and horror movies (Pulse, Journey to the Shore). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that for his France-set Daguerreotype (Le Secret de la chambre noire),a feature with a lot of firsts — Kurosawa’s first project shot abroad; his first in another language; his first with a European crew… — that he falls back on a familiar genre.

The result is a film that feels at once familiar and different and, surely not coincidentally, it would be hard to find two words that better describe the ghosts of people we know have passed on.

Beautifully made, though with just a faint hint of mothballs about the project, this Platform premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival should find be of interest to fans of the director but also to a slightly wider, Francophile audience.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the most versatile and in-demand French actor for international directors in recent years has been A Prophet star Tahar Rahim, who since his breakout in 2009 has worked with such renowned directors as Fatih Akin, Ashgar Farhadi, Kevin Macdonald and Lou Ye. In Kurosawa’s film, Rahim plays Jean, a Parisian who has difficulties making ends meet but then stumbles into a job as the assistant of reclusive photographer, Stephane (Belgian veteran actor Olivier Gourmet in a role that would’ve been for Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho had this film been in Japanese).

Stephane lives and works in a beautiful if somewhat rundown old mansion on the outskirts of Paris with his 22-year-old daughter, Marie (Constance Rousseau, Simon Killer), an otherworldly blonde who reminds the outwardly stoic but not-so-secretly melancholic Stephane of his dead wife. Marie poses for the daguerreotypes of the English title, which often require hours of standing still, with creepy constructions of metal bars behind her back and limbs helping her keep her body in place.

Though the film is set in the present, there is a distinct — and often slightly eerie — pull from the past that permeates every frame. When Jean first visits the old mansion, doors squeak and he thinks he sees a woman in an old-fashioned dress in the monumental staircase, as if the home’s first inhabitants were still around. And Stephane not only seems to mourn his wife, Denise, but there’s the distinct sensation that he’s trying to make her come back to life again in the life-size, silver-plated copper plates he shoots of their daughter (daguerreotypes were the first type of “photos” available, some 175 years ago). As if to underline the point he’s stuck in the past, it’s made clear in a chuckle-inducing interlude (which features Mathieu Amalric), that regular fashion shoots, on which he has to occasionally rely for money, are something Stephane abhors.

Adding to the sensation that the contemporary story lives at least partially in the past is the classically elegant camerawork of French cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine — who, coincidentally, also shot the documentary Kurosawa’s Way, about Kiyoshi’s colleague and namesake, Akira Kurosawa — and Gregoire Hetzel’s ditto, occasionally swelling score, with its harp and violin solos.

The refined and feather-light haunting quality of Kurosawa’s best ghost movies is certainly present here but the narrative in the second part isn’t streamlined enough for constant character identification. The events that unfold after Jean falls in love with Marie create a kind of parallel narrative that feeds into the film’s final act though the specifics of this aren’t always clear. There are also several subplots, including one with a realtor (Malik Zidi) with designs on the house and Marie’s plan to move to Toulouse where she could work as a botanist, that feel like they’ve been boiled down from more novelistic and thematically relevant stories to snippets that aren’t always entirely legible anymore.

That said, Rahim delivers another self-effacing performance as a working-class man sucked into a world that’s not his who has to try to find his bearings. It is thanks to his work that audiences will remain hooked. A double-take scene in an empty church is an especially strong moment because of Rahim’s (and Kurosawa’s) tacit understanding of understatement. With her alabaster skin and strawberry blonde hair, Rousseau has no problem incarnating a timeless beauty and her scenes away from the mansion imbue her puppet-like character with a real joie de vivre. Gourmet, finally, is reliable as a man who not only clings to his work when life no longer makes sense but actually tries to find some kind of salvation through his art.

Technically, the film is impeccably controlled.

Production companies: Les Productions Balthazar, Film-In-Evoltion, Frakas Productions, Bitters End, Arte
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Constance Rousseau, Olivier Gourmet, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Eleonore Mahmoudian, Catherine Paillé
Producers: Michiko Yoshitake, Jerome Dopffer
Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designers: Pascale Consigny, Sébastien Danos
Costume designer: Elisabeth Meku
Editor: Veronique Lange
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Sales: Celluloid Dreams

No rating, 132 minutes