In the second installment of TROUT FUN, an ongoing series of articles by guest writers and fellow critics, Tobias Burms joins us again for his take on last year’s Hitchcockian Japanese ghost mystery obsessed with old-school photography, ‘Daguerrotype’.
Also formerly known by the titles ‘Le Secret de la chambre noire’ (‘The Secret of the Dark Room’) and ‘La femme de la plaque argentique’ (‘The Woman in the Silver Plate’), the movie which eventually settled on the international title ‘Daguerrotype’ (mysteriously missing an ‘e’ but still referring to the first commonly used photographic process) was the second film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa which Burms and I saw together in 2016, after the aptly-titled ‘Creepy’. -MLP-
The use of Cinemascope in Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954) was a somewhat peculiar (albeit fascinating) stylistic choice, as it counterbalanced the intimacy of its classic revenge tale: Robert Mitchum plays a farmer who teams up with Marylin Monroe, former sweetheart of the cattle rustler that left him for dead. The film relies heavily on passionate bickering between the on-screen couple, but in the seemingly endless surroundings, every gesture is bloated. ‘Acted’ mannerisms become easy to scrutinize and the dramatic poignancy crumbles away into spatial infinity. In spite of its Technicolor dazzle, there is no real warmth in this western, where characters inhabit a vacuum of loneliness and vulnerability.
A similar mechanism occurs in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Le secret de la chambre noire as leading man Tahar Rahim’s (perhaps still stuck in Audiard-gear trying to deliver a ‘naturalistic’ performance) coarse movements and overblown facial expressions clash with the ponderous, doom-laden atmosphere; he’s the only vibrant element in a formalistically structured universe. This apparent contradiction, however, fits the film’s theme. Rahim plays Jean, an unambitious thirty-something who thinks he’s landed a cushy job assisting a photographer trying to re-create the image of his deceased wife using the centuries old daguerreotype technique with his daughter as a model. Perhaps the only one with a heartbeat in this barren ménage-a-trois, Jean looks on as the photographer and his daughter are constantly filmed in a mournful mood, framed as static reflections of the past (the daughter – played by Constance Rousseau – has the fair-skinned delicacy of silent film stars) who dwell in the countless rooms of a decayed mansion, rooms of which the boundaries are never quite aligned.
This idea of an endless hors-champ, gets a temporal component as well, as Kurosawa reflects the melancholy of lost time in various ways: the master-apprentice bond is portrayed to be of solemn importance, as if there’s no nobler cause than to learn the traditions of the past. Entire lives are sacrificed to look after loved ones who slowly descend into madness. In a cramped apartment, pipe dreams of a brighter future are planned.
Even Kurosawa’s fascination with urban decay is more intrinsically linked with time than with space: Jean and some unspecified friends have made the leap from Lens (one of France’s most largely populated areas) to Paris, hoping to strike lucky in ‘the big city’. Yet, they find themselves stuck in some dormitory suburb of the Val-de-Marne district, a residential area that looks like a run-of-the-mill French town and lacks the monumental reference points of the capital. The only images that remind us of Paris are dissolving ones, such as a vague panorama of the Eiffel Tower and the relic of a Parisian brasserie (with surly waiters as part of the experience) where Jean blows his first pay check on oysters and white wine (a timeless classic). While the film’s leitmotif of a greenhouse suggests resurgence, Kurosawa’s answers are not that comforting: can we really trust a real estate agent who wants to tear down an ancient manor for an ‘ecological project’? Is it wise for a promising botanist to start a new life with an empathy-lacking boyfriend who’s cooking up a fiendish plot to double-cross her father? And how does a young man’s heart recover from being stood up at the altar by a ghost?