‘He’s confused photography and reality for so long he can no longer tell the living from the dead.’
In a misty yet dour France, rootless young Jean (Tahar Rahim) applies for a job replacing the elderly assistant of photographer Stéphane (Olivier Gourmet). A tiny alarm should tinkle when he’s told that he’s a shoo-in because all the other applicants know something about photography, but he quietly needs the gig. Stéphane, a sought-after and temperamental fashion photographer, has all but abandoned his career to focus on recreating the huge images captured by the antique daguerrotype machine. The device looks like a giant box camera and creates gorgeous window-sized portraits, though its slow exposure mean that the subjects have to be wired into cruel-seeming armatures to hold their poses for an hour or more. Making these pictures is an obsession for Stéphane, but verges on torture for those he photographs.
Stéphane’s favoured muse is his timid horticulturalist daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau), who raises rare plants in the conservatory – though it’s possible the shadowy figure in antique clothes Jean glimpses on his first visit isn’t Marie but her late mother Denise (Valerie Sibilia), whose ghost seems to linger on the property. Jean is drawn to the attractive Marie and into Stéphane’s strange world, but there are several threats to the semi-gothic idyll. Stephane’s agent (Mathieu Amalric) is in league with a developer (Malik Zidi) who wants to buy the photographer’s house and land for an eco-development, while Marie dreams of leaving for a job in another town. The erratic Stéphane more obsessed with the process, at the expense of all other concerns – including his daughter’s welfare. When Marie falls down stairs, in a flatly-shot sequence that requires some dangerous stuntwork, Jean sees a way of manipulating Stéphane into selling (he’s been promised a commission) by having Marie pose as a ghost … though it’s not entirely clear to him or us that she isn’t. And old tragedies and secrets stir in shadows, while cast-off mercury (from the photographic process) poisons the ground.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who wrote and directed (with some screenplay assistance from Catherine Paillé and Eleonore Mahmoudian), has perfected his mode of matter-of-fact supernatural mystery on his Japanese home ground, but here relocates to France – where the cameras came from – in a way which prompts some not familiar with his other work to diagnose a visitor’s alienation. Actually, his Japanese works are just as off-kilter and out-of-tune and this fits right in with Doppelganger, Cure, Séance, Pulse and the other intense, mostly small-scale movies he made before expanding a little with more mainstream arthouse fare like Tokyo Sonata and Journey to the Shore and moves into suspense (Creepy) and science fiction (Before We Vanish). Kurosawa films the unbelievable basically, quite often with a seemingly antiquated and unfussy approach that might relate to the long pose daguerrotypes, but lets the chills creep in … the way romantic-eerie music swells in the second half of the film, after being a notable absence during the long (and, it has to be said, slow) opening section.
This has the sort of subject matter found in a Hitchcock perverse mystery or a Roger Corman gothic, but often looks more like a Bresson or an Albert Serra films. It hints rather than states its plot points, but exercises a growing fascination – with the ordinary, canny, in-the-end unethical and haunted protagonist – a noir hustler played like an everyman — drawn into the orbit of a mad artist who has a Poe-Price touch about him (though Gourmet is known for his work in the realist Dardenne Bros mode), down to the weird attempt to reshape a living daughter into a late wife. It’s such a slow burn that it comes as a shock to realise these people are dangerous – and capable of acts of violence and cruelty whch aren’t dwelled on but do have an impact. Non-devotees of Kurosawa’s mode of horror aren’t likely to be won over by this, but it’s (literally) an interesting development from one of the great genre auteurs of the age.