J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Japan Cuts ‘17: Daguerrotype

If any old picture is worth a thousand words than the sweat equity that goes into a daguerreotype ought to increase the exchange rate dramatically. In fact, a rather anti-social photographer is convinced daguerreotypes constitute the only true photography. The punishing lengths of time he requires his subjects to sit almost seems to be part of their appeal. Not surprisingly, the only models who would regularly endure his long sittings were his late wife and his neurotic dead-ringer daughter. As a result, his new assistant will be walking into a rather tense family dynamic and maybe, possibly a slightly haunted house in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first French language film, Daguerrotype (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Jean is initially hired as Stéphane’s assistant precisely because he has no proper photography baggage. He also doesn’t seem to mind working long hours, after his extended period of unemployment (this was Hollande’s France, after all). The old man finds him adequately adequate, but his nervous daughter Marie takes a liking to him. She clearly sees Jean as a potential ally in her quiet campaign to lead a more independent life. Of course, the obsessive daguerreotypist would not care to lose his best and really only model.

Stéphane is also not inclined to move from his spacious but ramshackle villa either, despite the lucrative offers made by the local council and Jean’s efforts to nudge him along (for a sizable commission). It seems his property is dead smack in the middle of a proposed “green works” boondoggle. It also might be haunted. Now and then, Kurosawa will show us hints of the uncanny, but he will maintain the ambiguity until very late in the third act.

In terms of its tone and approach to the supernatural Daguerrotype compares very directly with Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. However, it lacks the breathlessly intense prologue of the Shopper, which really sets up the audience on pins and needles for the rest of the film. Instead, each door that mysteriously opens raises our hopes that he will finally get into it, only to find it is another tease.

Still, enormous credit is due to Olivier Gourmet who is absolutely riveting as the arrogant, guilt-ridden, and possibly delusional Stéphane. Frankly, one of the most frightening aspects of the film is watching him fall into an ambiguous mental state somewhere between sanity and madness. Tahar Rahim broods well enough as Jean, but Constance Rousseau’s remarkable portrait of Marie is achingly fragile and somewhat off. As usual, it is also fun to watch Mathieu Amalric do his thing in a small but colorful role as Stéphane’s sleazy agent.

This is Kurosawa’s first film with a Euro crew, but he certainly can’t complain about the tech contributions. Alexis Kavyrchine softly-lit cinematography is appropriately eerie, while Casa Stéphane is quite a feat of mise-en-scene. However, the truly ghostly life-size daguerreotypes are absolutely indispensable for the film’s look, tone, and overall effect. So, yes, a picture is worth a bunch of words. Good, but not the masterwork we’re all hoping for, Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype is still very much worth seeing when it has its New York premiere tomorrow (7/18) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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