The latest film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, also boasts the fact that it is one of my top seven most anticipated films of 2017. The main reason for this is because this is the first time that Kurosawa has made a film outside of his native Japan and spoken in a language different to his own. As I have mentioned previously, I am always interested to see if a filmmaker can successfully transpose his ideas and visual style when working in a country they are unfamiliar with. Very recently we saw Paul Verhoeven have great success with “Elle”, his first film shot in French, and now it is Kiyoshi Kurosawa's turn as “Daguerrotype” is also a French film, but will he have the same success as his Dutch counterpart? Let's take a look, shall we?
“Daguerrotype” is about a young man, named Jean, who finds employment as a photographer's assistant. What makes this unique though is the photographer, Stephane, makes photographic images via the archaic technique known as daguerreotype photography which is where an image is chemically transferred to a silver plate. As beautiful as the results end up being, the process also causes the model severe discomfort as they are forced to sit still for increased amounts of time. Struggling to come to terms with his wife's recent suicide, Stephane has given up his more lucrative fashion shoots as he becomes more and more obsessed with creating the perfect daguerreotype, with his daughter Marie as the model. Jean is immediately entranced by the beautiful Marie, and when the two plan to leave the chateau, where they are residing together with Stephane, to make a life together, it is the catalyst to an event that will see these three people's lives forever changed.
When “Daguerrotype” first started screening during its festival run, it was greeted with a luke-warm response. While the director himself described the film as a horror film, most reviews for it stated that the film moved at a snail's pace, with very little of the horror promised. Normally I would be a little disheartened by this, but I was still very much spellbound by the film's initial poster (see above) and the fact that even though this was a French film, from the images in the trailer, it was no doubt first and foremost a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film which made me excited. The added fact that until this film I knew nothing about daguerreotype photography, that I ended up finding myself anticipating the film more and more. Thankfully I found out about a screening of the film at the local “French Film Festival” here in Melbourne and I rushed out to see it.
Right from the get-go I was mesmerised by “Daguerrotype”. It had a slow, deliberate build up and it had me immediately hooked. While it is true that the film is light on the horror, I was surprised that the film was much more of a thriller than I was expecting which delighted me. In fact for around two thirds of the film, I felt like I was watching a new classic from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Unfortunately the film peaks far too early, with a truly stunning suspense sequence that stands tall as some of the greatest work Kurosawa has ever put on film. However from this sequence on, the film gradually gets sillier and sillier until it ends on an embarrassing whimper which is so sad, compared to all the greatness that came before it. In the end, “Daguerrotype” is a film that has great parts, but the sum of these parts does not add up to a great movie.
When it comes to the visual style of a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, I always find it hard to describe because they always come across as very clean and uncomplicated, but at the same time his films have such a distinct look that its always obvious when Kurosawa is the author of a film. As I mentioned earlier, the trailer gave a great indication that he was able to transpose his visual style to this French film, even though he was unable to work with his regular cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. Here he is paired with Alexis Kavyrchine, and the two together are able to create images consistent with those of past Kurosawa features while at the same time doing something completely new than anything he has done before. I think the main reason for this is the location of the film and how different the French countryside is compared to the hustle and bustle of city life in Japan. Here Kurosawa gets to play with locations dripping in gothic atmosphere as opposed to the sleek, shiny surfaces of modern Tokyo and it has seemed to really inspire this talented director. In both a recent documentary on Hitchcock and in an interview focusing on himself, Kurosawa has claimed how he is a student of Alfred Hitchcock and that he believes he is inspired or influenced more by him than any other director. Hearing these comments surprised me because although they both worked regularly in the same thriller genre, I saw little comparison between the two. However I can authoritatively state that “Daguerrotype” is a total homage to the “Master of Suspense”. For the first time I can actively see Kurosawa aping Hitchcock's visual style and doing it with aplomb. The aforementioned suspense sequence is so outstandingly done and unlike anything Kurosawa has done previous but he is able to continually ratchet up the suspense using camera movements and editing similar to Hitch without ever outright stealing one of his scenes. I was so impressed by this sequence, and also so sad when what comes after it is so disappointing. As well as this impressive sequence, the film has a number of gorgeous images, most involving either the ghost or Marie, when she is posing for her father. Probably the single most beautiful image in the film is of the life sized daguerreotype of Marie, clothed in a period blue dress, with water cascading down the silver plate (see below; although the still does not do the moving image justice). No surprises that Kurosawa's is at his strongest when focusing on scenes involving the ghost. Rather than the usual Hollywood way of using a ghost to give a jolt or a scare, Kurosawa continues to use the spectres to create an uneasy atmosphere, continually building up suspense, until he gives you that final scare.
Aside from the visual side of the film, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has teamed up with composer Gregoire Hetzel to create a score that is immediately recognisable as an homage to Bernhard Herrmann. Similar to Kurosawa himself, Hetzel has been able to create music that although very similar to Herrmann's output whilst working with Hitchcock, is never an outright steal. He comes up with some beautifully haunting melodies when dealing with the love story, as well as some fantastic and aggressive notes when the film needs to ratchet up the suspense, very similar to what is done in Hitchcock's “Vertigo”. For mine, this is the best use of music I have heard yet in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, and even though I am not a huge fan of music, I immediately tracked down and bought a copy of the soundtrack for this film, I was that impressed by it.
In terms of the film's negatives, I was never totally thrilled by any of the performances. Tahar Rahim as Jean, has the biggest character arc and has two distinct sides to his personality, but he failed to define them satisfactorily; in fact the performance as a whole is rather flat, particularly in the second half of the film when Jean's true nature is exposed. While Constance Rousseau fits the bill when it comes to the beauty of her character, sadly she has an underwritten role and really has little to do but stand and look pretty. My favourite performance in the film was by Olivier Gourmet who plays Stephane. He is a complex character; very selfish in what he wants and how he achieves these wants, while at the same time being a tragic character as he is haunted, both figuratively and literally, by the ghosts of his past and the suicide of his wife. Stephane is someone who has never come to terms with his grief, nor with his involvement in his wife's suicide, to the point that he is no longer operating in a normal sane state. Gourmet does a great job of showing the pain this guy is going through, whilst at the same time exposing just how mean and manipulative he can be to get what he wants.
The biggest disappointment of “Daguerrotype” though is the narrative and where the film actually goes with the story. As I mentioned above, I was enthralled with the film for the opening two thirds of it. It was a slowly paced story dealing with grief, greed, death and dealing with the past and it was all wrapped up in a beautiful ghost story, with a romance developing on the side. It then reaches the most exquisite suspense scene, the greatest in the film, and then sadly just becomes very silly after that. No longer is daguerreotype photography needed in the plot, so it is suddenly just ignored, while the rest of the film follows a path that has been trodden many times before. The sad part is that it is all so obvious what is going on, and yet Kurosawa seems to believe that he has tricked his audience and thus strings us along for about half an hour too long with scenes, which after the predictable reveal is shown, that are totally pointless to the film or story. In fact when the credits of the film started, an audible groan was let out by a large number of the audience I was in. It was a total let down, after how great the earlier parts of the film were. For the second film in a row, this and “Creepy” (which interestingly was shot after “Daguerrotype” but released before it), Kiyoshi Kurosawa has made a film that I thought was to become an instant classic, only to totally mess up the ending.
Overall, I am torn over my viewing of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's “Daguerrotype”. It is a film that when it is good, it is totally amazing and some of the best work done yet by this talented Japanese director, but equally, when it is bad, it is almost embarrassing. Parts of the film; the visual style, music, editing and suspense are fantastic, but the sum of these parts do not add up to a totally successful film. The film is uneven, but for the majority of the film I had a great time with it; it just saddens me that the film did not end up becoming the masterpiece I felt it was going to be whilst I was watching it.