Review by Jacquelin Hipes
For the unfamiliar, daguerreotypy was an early form of photography in which a chemically treated silver plate was exposed in a camera obscura (or “dark chamber”) for a period of time, then treated a second time with mercury and other chemicals to reveal and preserve an image on its surface. Other photographic techniques quickly surpassed the Daguerreotype technique but it enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Images captured in this fashion could record a great level of detail and had the unique characteristic of shifting from negative to positive when the silver plate was tilted, producing an effect similar to the security holograms in use today.
This bygone technique lies at the heart of Daguerrotype, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first French-language film. Photographer Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet) has walked away from the fashion industry to create life-sized daguerreotypes of his daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau) in their decaying mansion nestled in a Paris suburb. Joining them is new assistant Jean (Tahar Rahim), inexperienced but intrigued by the work. Stéphane remains preoccupied with his wife’s unexpected death and his new portraits of Marie bear an eerie resemblance to smaller versions featuring her mother.
Time-worn signs of the supernatural plague our characters from the start. Doors open and shut of their own accord, while a shadowy figure who may or may not be Marie in her period dress wanders the halls. To term Daguerrotype a horror film risks the ire of many genre fans, though. There is no gore, nor are there cheap jump scares. In fact, it’s refreshing to note that Grégoire Hetzel’s score fades to silence for every ominous passage. In these moments the beauty of cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine’s work ably carries the brunt of responsibility for mood and tone. The closest genre approximation would be gothic horror, although Kurosawa’s approach veers so subtle that it often settles into insipidness.
A tragic accident near the halfway mark serves as a catalyst to more than the characters. It transforms an understated modern gothic into a haphazard mélange of genres. A minor subplot involving the sale of Stéphane’s land surges into prominence, mixed in with financial scheming and a dash of lovers-on-the-run, while also doubling down on the supernatural mystery present from the start. Even with this new momentum the dialogue remains stilted and the characters delivering it too flimsy to elicit much empathy. By the end, the question of reality versus hallucination doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should.
Kurosawa has had great success with past films like Pulse and Creepy. As the first half of Daguerrotype demonstrates, he can finely control the timbre and rising tension of a scene with staging and light. Yet in the latter portion he overreaches, abandoning an elegant simplicity in favor of disjointed thrills. The end result lacks the charisma and detail of the gleaming silver plates that are the cause of so much anguish at its center, instead mimicking the quick satisfaction of a candid Polaroid.
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