For his first French-language film, Japanese horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa journeys to the land of cinema’s birth with a tale centered around one of the earliest forms of still photography: the daguerreotype. A 19th century apparatus that captures images on a silver plate, the daguerreotype camera requires the sitter to remain absolutely motionless for a punishing span of time, and that process ends up being an unfortunate metaphor for the film itself, which demands a substantial degree of patience from its audience without fully paying it off. Heavy on moody atmospherics yet fundamentally inert, “Daguerrotype” (Le Secret de la chambre noire) never quite comes into focus.
Most famous Stateside for his seminal 2001 J-horror film, “Pulse,” Kurosawa is an expert at establishing a mood of placid unease, and that gift is on display in the opening stretches of this film. Jean (Tahar Rahim), an underemployed young Parisian, arrives at an enormous yet dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of the city for a job interview where he appears to be the only applicant.
Despite — or rather because of — his lack of photographic experience, he’s hired to be an assistant for Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet), a solemn, disillusioned former fashion photographer who has assembled an elaborate daguerreotype setup in his basement, believing his life-sized silver-plated images to be the only true form of photography.
The only model who can withstand the strain of posing perfectly still for hours on end — assisted by a steel back-support contraption that resembles a medieval torture device — is Stéphane’s daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau). Beautiful, and impeccably put-together aside from her disconcertingly twitchy eyes, Marie’s relationship with her father has unnerving undertones of sadism, as he pushes her for longer and longer sessions. She longs to escape the pervasive gloom of her father’s house, and clearly sees Jean as a window out.
Meanwhile, Stéphane’s grip on reality has become alarmingly tenuous, and he’s prone to seeing visions of his perfect former model — his wife — who died a few years earlier. As Jean gets more deeply involved in his boss’ practice, he’s roped into a very low-key conspiracy at the behest of Stéphane’s colleague (Mathieu Amalric) and a conniving real estate developer (Malik Zidi), who want to convince Stéphane to sell his house. With Jean now acting as a sort of double-agent, it seems only a matter of time before whatever supernatural undercurrents are circulating the house start to touch him, too.
Kurosawa has set up an intriguing batch of themes here, from the diffuse hints of a ghost story to the unspoken idea that Stéphane’s quest for artistic purity is slowly sapping the life-force from his subjects. He also gives us plenty of time to percolate in the sunless setting, shooting long, wandering takes as the house reveals ever more corners and oddly-angled staircases. Yet it’s well over an hour into the two-hour-plus running time before any of the film’s narrative wheels start to get moving, and never do they gain much momentum. Rather than building tension and opening up new layers as it goes, “Daguerrotype” reaches a peak somewhere in the middle and then starts to steadily deflate.
The cast acquits itself well throughout, though Kurosawa’s insistence on holding his characters at arms-length from the audience keeps them from fully connecting. Well designed and interestingly shot, “Daguerrotype” is always engaging to look at, but much like Stéphane’s joyless photo sessions, it’s all just too cloistered and obsessed with fastidious details to let in enough light.