By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A figure approaches from the other side of frosted glass. The light’s bright on the other side, but the audience can’t see who, or what, travels along the glass. Only the shadow, vague, with sharp edges from the glass, coming closer and closer.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa loves the frosted glass and the shadows behind them; they figure in several of his previous horror films. For the French-language “Daguerrotype,” though, a rare excursion outside his native Japan, the director surrounds his protagonist, the photographer Stephane. Stephane inhabits a house that’s almost, though not quite, in the country, and every window on his ground floor is frosted. He can’t see who or what’s coming, by looking from inside.
Quite a bit like living inside a giant cataract, no one and nothing distinct, until he opens his door. And his aged upper-floor windows, while not frosted over, display a distorted view thanks to their extreme age. Wavy distortion, like an underwater view. So Stephane cannot distinguish between the real and the unreal. He doesn’t know the living from the ghosts to begin with, and things only get worse.
Stephane (played by Olivier Gourmet) asks an employment agency for a photography assistant. His longtime assistant has grown too old to lift heavy things, and the job involves a lot of heavy things. The photographic plates for the antiquated daguerreotype process (the film uses an alternate spelling for its title), come life-sized, six feet tall, and perhaps four feet wide. The subject must stand or sit in front of the bared camera lens for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, perhaps more, to deliver a detailed portrait. And after the pose, the plate is treated with mercury vapor, a poisonous concoction requiring safety masks to administer.
Daguerreotyping was the first widely-available photographic process dating back to 1839. But they became almost completely extinct when simpler techniques arrived on the market circa 1860. But Stephane, a former fashion photographer, once much in demand, retreats to old ways, much as he retreats within his house. His daughter, Marie (Constance Rousseau), runs errands for him, and his new assistant, the young Jean (Tahar Rahim), takes care of technical details of the photographs.
Kurosawa wrote his own script here, although he relied on French translators to render his script into French, and to help collaborate with the actors. The film throws in his famous frosted glass fascination, but other aspects of his earlier work carry over. Mysteriously moving figures wander through dark corners of the frame. Are they alive? Dead?
Neither? Something moving toward the camera might resolve as human, but not necessarily.
Marie, as her father’s default model, spends long stretches standing still, because her father, trying distinctly to recreate lost daguerreotypes, wants her in standing poses. Even bolstered from behind with a skeletal framework designed to keep models upright, it’s exhausting work. But her father won’t settle for anything less than his own ways.
He fancies himself the only pure, true photographer working, and anyone else, including Jean and Marie, must dance to his tune inside the cataract house.
The photographer is also seeing ghosts. And he’s not sure if he wants to un-see the ghosts.
I won’t reveal too much about the action, except that much depends on bodies, viewed straight on or through the windows, some moving, some still. And the line between alive and dead wavers, much like waves of distortion in the upstairs glass.
The cataract house, in the end, seems alive. Slowly, quietly, methodically, it absorbs the sanity of everyone within. It blurs lines because it can catch souls that way. Everyone feels the dark power. But no one escapes.
“Daguerrotype” is now available through Video On Demand, and on iTunes, Sony, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu, Comcast, Charter, Cox, Vimeo, and others.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.