Unlike many sectors of the economy, the ghost story is, all other things being equal, virtually recession-proof. They can take place anywhere on Earth (or off Earth; John Carpenter found a few on Mars), and, since one can’t make intellectual property claims over a genre, that’s one “remit payment” notice that’ll never darken an author’s doorstep. You’re bound by few obligations — you can even disregard the requirement that tales of spooks be outright spooky, if you know well enough what you’re doing — and, because of the genre’s universal dimension, every now and then we’re blessed by artists who make it their private dominion of personal expression. Val Lewton was one such person; the supernatural-themed movies he produced were exemplary in both in their budgetary ingenuity and emotional potency. Another is the Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose few films that don’t dwell in the macabre at least seem macabre-adjacent.
Daguerrotype (2016), made during one of his more productive periods, has recently made a soft landing on a few digital and streaming platforms (including YouTube and Google Play), having spent a year or so coasting the festival circuit. Still theatrically undistributed in the U.S., it is unapologetically and unequivocally a ghost story, like many titles in the Kurosawa back catalog. But instead of simply adding another room to his mansion of supernatural tales, Kurosawa demonstrates that he can thrive under a fresh set of conditions: A new place, a foreign language (French), and a cast void of familiar faces from the Kurosawa stock company. Once again, the careworn ghost-story genre seems only to renew his imaginative spark.
Walking a path shared by many Japanese filmmakers who came of age during the rocky Seventies, Kurosawa exited film school to find work almost exclusively in exploitation genres. It took about ten years of drudgery, including a mildly disappointing collaboration with Tampopo’s Juzo Itami (the 1989 haunted-house adventure Sweet Home, which suffered from meddling hands), before the application of his style began to bear fruit. Starting with the ultra-violent 1992 thriller The Guard From Underground, Kurosawa’s ability to fill requisitions quickly, more often than not for producers who demanded nothing better than cheapjack pulp, began to be distinguished by images and rhythms that weren’t like any other filmmaker’s: elliptical cutting, unexpected symmetries, a gray-washed cast that seemed to intrude even upon broad daylight. He found beauty in puddles and mile-high mounds of refuse; poignancy in the criminally depraved; entropic disappointment radiating from stoic men haunted by missions of vengeance.
Having already learned the ropes by making somethings from nothings, Kurosawa was ready and able to approach minimally budgeted sets of assignments — the Revenge diptych; the rhyming pair of Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider; and the five-part Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself!! series, all made between 1995 and 1998 — and to infuse them with a signature style that continues to serve him to this day. Now busier than ever after more than thirty years in the industry, Kurosawa has only grown more sophisticated and opaque in his methods, at precisely the moment when he could be tempted to rehash former triumphs. But cashing in doesn’t come naturally to the 62-year-old filmmaker, perhaps because the films that might be said to make up most of his equity — namely the international hits Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) — don’t fit the expected profile of such successes. They are not quite the calling cards — bidding by proof-of-concept for larger assignments — that the likes of John Woo, Paul Verhoeven, or Luc Besson have used in order to achieve a secure, global standing.
Circumstantially playing second fiddle to 2016’s other French ghost story, Olivier Assayas’s acclaimed Kristen Stewart–featuring Personal Shopper, Daguerrotype stars Tahar Rahim (Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past) as a newly-hired photographer’s assistant to revered master Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), who, in mourning over the death of his wife, has buried himself in work. Still a highly sought-after photographer, Stéphane eschews lucrative fashion shoots, instead booking a rarified coterie of clients to pose for the all-but-obsolete “tintype” method of picture-making, at or near (or, even, beneath) his lavish Paris estate. In a world ever-threatened with the flat homogeneity of mass reproduction and digitization, Kurosawa presents Stéphane as having pushed his process, rooted in antiquity, to its practical ideal, far exceeding the clichéd “artisanal” moniker to approach something like a selfless piety, prostrate before painstakingly refined technique. His dedication has exacted a price, however — although exactly what, and exactly how, is obscured by some of the script’s quiet vagaries.
Not much of what follows will surprise any casual follower of gothic horror or romance, as proliferated by writers like Daphne du Maurier and M.R. James. Jean, the assistant, dark-haired and of a sinewy leanness that carries a sweater brilliantly, and mildly afflicted with Dickensian ambition, quite naturally falls for the photographer’s daughter, played by the lithe Constance Rousseau. For reasons that are made apparent at about the halfway mark, Kurosawa makes the most of every opportunity to play up Rousseau’s dual quality as both a creature from the realm of the uncanny and an irreconcilably fragile child of earth. Jean will also come to shoulder added narrative business concerning an attempt to persuade Stéphane to sell his luxurious estate to greedy developers; these efforts begin in earnest but inevitably descend into duplicity and blunt coercion. Jean’s character buckles a little, conceptually, from the excess burden of this subplot, as if a George Sanders–esque cad in an earlier draft had, as a matter of expediency, been absorbed in a rewrite. In a bit of screenplay lumpenness, Jean changes gears uneasily from unabashed sweetness to a measure of deceitful and cunning that seems both beneath and above his natural state.
As written, then, Daguerrotype exerts none of the strong pull of a machine-tooled narrative, lets a little too much slack in a number of plot strands, and applies a thin gauze over a few too many uncertainties. Intimations of telltale hearts and risen, vengeful corpses loom, but very little sensationalism materializes in any meaningful capacity. Its ending is secondhand. Just the same, if the movie doesn’t succeed, per se, as a haunted-house plot of escapist designs, its geologic layering of uncertainties and closed doors produces a chilling effect — all the better to vault past ignoble concerns like screenplay tidiness.
First and foremost, there is, it shouldn’t be denied, the base excitement of Kurosawa operating half a world away from his customary purlieu (although we know he has a valid passport, having filmed 2013’s Seventh Code in scenic Vladivostok). It’s a satisfaction of a routine cinephile imagining, in the tradition of “What would have happened if Robert Bresson had come to Hollywood and made a Western?” If Daguerrotype accomplishes nothing else, it satiates this hunger for such grab-bag clashes; I won’t excuse myself from such folly. Furthermore, picturing Kurosawa directing Gourmet, one of the French-language cinema’s premier actors, and Rahim, one of its most promising, is quite a dividend to be earned from a filmmaker who has worked with (and often ignited) such luminaries as Kōji Yakusho, Tadanobu Asano, Shô Aikawa, Teruyuki Kagawa, and pop star Atsuko Maeda. Gourmet and Rahim acquit themselves brilliantly, but I would be trafficking in dishonest fandom to claim that the elation of this crossing of swords wasn’t some “thrill by affiliation,” the pleasure of seeing disparate artists of high esteem, otherwise strangers to one another, enrolled in the same project. Early scenes — before various shoes drop — show Gourmet and Rahim quietly working as cameraman and assistant, practically supporting actors in their own movie. A fixture of Dardenne brothers films since 1996’s La Promesse, Gourmet can understate any scene partner under the table, but Rahim’s low-key puppy-dog verve is just the right counteragent, and helps to varnish our journey through the diabolical story turns suggested above.
All of which is concept, carrying a payload that’s as easily imagined as witnessed. (But richly witnessed, just the same.) The film is also unspeakably beautiful and, indeed, genuinely haunting. Brushing lightly against themes of obsolescence, noble obstinance, and the pitiless vengeance of the ignored (exploited?) collaborator, Daguerrotype remains a tale of phantoms who persist because it was our wish, if not our will, that it should be so. If the movie should end as a riddle too prosaically solved, consider the movie’s frequent visual motifs — industrial hardware and chemical compounds used to hold fast those whose likeness we think ought to be plunged into eternity — at the bodily cost of an hour or two only. Kurosawa’s script misleads with implausible peccadillos and double-crosses, but, like the mercury that shouldn’t invade the soil, but does, a malignant spiritual glow fastens to altogether older earths, now eternally spoiled, while spirits who now return from the underground bear a likeness of terrible familiarity. What a sad film, devouring even deservedly hopeful youth.