A stubborn photographer immobilises a young woman with a strange metal apparatus. The young woman is the photographer’s daughter, dressed as if she inhabited the 19th century. The apparatus with which her photo is taken is an enormous camera obscura, operated by the photographer and his young, poor assistant. The assistant and the daughter lock eyes, a romantic glance passing between them. The father takes out a stopwatch, preparing to time the exposure, and he says, “I will make you immortal.”
The pieces are in place for a classic tale, one set by old mansions and spooky thunderstorms. Don’t be so assured you’ll know exactly how this plays out, however, as the storyteller is an unusual choice.
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is mostly known to western audiences through his 2001 techno-horror film Pulse (and its awful American remake), a movie which arguably perfected the then-burgeoning J-Horror movement, featuring many a long-haired-ghost woman. What always separated Kurosawa from his peers was his almost preternatural ease with silence and emptiness. At their best, Kurosawa’s films dissolve the barrier between the audience and the screen, forcing you and your mind to fill the gaps in the frame.
Daguerreotype is essentially an old school Gothic romance twisted into something special by Kurosawa’s inimitable restraint and gliding camera. Kurosawa’s camera occasionally moves like Bunuel’s once did, a sort of curious omnipresence – except, where Bunuel found joy and awe in his imagery, Kurosawa only finds fear and regret. He trains you to search every inch of the frame for something horrible, something terrifying – and though you usually find nothing, his atmosphere morphs frustration into dread. You begin begging the film to show you something unwell.
Occasionally this patient approach is trying, as Kurosawa loves to soak in banality for the sake of a tone that could be strengthened by a tightened pacing. Sometimes, he has the opposite problem; in the few occasions Daguerreotype enacts its plot in active bursts, it moves too quickly, sliding over melodramatic developments haphazardly when a slower reveal would have worked better.
These faults fade away, however, when you allow the film to put you under its spell. Kurosawa knows that ghosts don’t have to be seen to haunt you, and that the absence of an image is often more powerful than its presence. The final sequence, in particular, delivers information that the audience already knows, but Kurosawa cuts it with such heartbreaking quiet that it becomes poignant despite its inevitability. Not too long before that, the only true moment of outright horror juxtaposes terrifying stillness and reckless retreat such that my breath was lost, giving the audience exactly what they had been expecting the entire film but shooting it so sincerely that it nears corniness – instead, it finds profundity.
The camera keeps us alive. A picture, or a film, does not acknowledge the future, it only exists for itself. As soon as one acknowledges the end, it becomes true.