Daguerreotype sees the young, unemployed Jean (Tahar Rahim) accept an offer to become an apprentice to the photographer Stephane Megray (Olivier Gourmet). Stephane lives in a decaying Parisian mansion with his daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau). He is obsessed with using 19th century methods of photography, most notably daguerreotypes: live-sized eerie reproductions produced using mirrors, silver, numerous toxic chemicals and excruciatingly long takes. He pressures Marie to model for him: dressing her in period clothes, and immobilising her in his basement studio by a series of metal frames and clamps that seem more like torture implements than photography aids. Something is clearly awry in the Megray house. Jean steals glimpses of a mysterious woman roaming the upper floors. Stephane appears to be hearing voices. Marie is desperate to escape her father, taking Jean with her.
Daguerreotype is the international filmmaking debut of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Back in Japan he is very well regarded for a series of beautifully observed dramas and subtle horror films. With his 1998 thriller Cure he arguably kick-started the entire J-horror phenomenon, and subsequent films including Pulse, Tokyo Sonata and Creepy have also made him a critical favourite overseas.
This film sees Kurosawa revisit some familiar themes and tones in a fresh context. It is a deliberately slow and gentle supernatural drama, one that is packed with atmosphere thanks to its vaguely gothic overtones and seemingly haunted mansion setting. Kurosawa is a master at gently applying tension to a scene, but unlike other directors he rarely releases that tension with a sudden jolt or shock. Instead that tension continues to build, meticulously constructed one moment at a time to almost ridiculous lengths. It is a superbly creepy and unsettling work. It is immediately clear that there is something off-kilter within the Megray house; that much is clear from the imagery alone. It is a visual litany of horror imagery: savage-looking clamps and restraints, large barrels of mercury, and a quite striking number of scenes in which characters look into mirrors.
Everybody seems on edge. Belgian star Olivier Gourmet delivers a wonderfully edgy portrayal of Stephane – a grieving widower who has poured the heartbreak over his dead wife into his photography. As his daughter Marie, Constance Rousseau brings a strange fragile quality to her role. With her pale, wide-eyed features she presents a striking screen presence. Tahar Rahim, who has delivered some exceptional performances in the likes of A Prophet and The Last Panthers, gives the audience something of a handhold in this oppressive, uncomfortable environment. He gives Jean a likeable, identifiable quality despite the character not always acting with the most honourable of intentions.
This is a superbly realised film, but it is one that demands a certain level of patience. Things move with a deliberate and measured pace. It actually plays its hand relatively early in the piece, but then delays further revelations until much, much later. That something supernatural is occurring never seems to be in doubt, but precisely what the visitation is and how it has affected the characters is drawn out with an impressive level of restraint. What overt horror imagery appears is limited but correspondingly much more effective.
Once again Kurosawa has produced a strong and evocative journey to an uncomfortable place. The degree to which the viewer wishes to stay there for an hour or two is really down to the individual. Speaking personally, I loved it.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.