Mythmaker: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Discusses "Daguerrotype"

An interview with the Japanese genre master about his first French production, its genesis and influences.
Daniel Kasman

Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Photo courtesey of Film-in-evolution | Les Productions Balthazar

Gone are the glory days when Hollywood would identify and poach remarkable foreign (inevitably European) directors, enticing them with greater budgets and production capabilities. France, with its generous co-production financing, cannot compete with Hollywood of the 1930s, but half a decade ago they brought over a spate of our favorite East Asian auteurs to make several great films: Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day) and Tsai Ming-liang (Visage). Now count Kiyoshi Kurosawa with that number. The Japanese director, best known for a cluster of haunting mysteries that coincided with the J-Horror trend and still conflated with that brief cultural moment, has made Daguerrotype, a haunted house gothic featuring French stars Tahar Rahim and Olivier Gourmet.

Though often creeping towards horror—“thriller” might be more appropriate, if his films didn’t move at an unsettling, dreamily stilted pace—Kurosawa has a deft touch at blending genres in order to hold us, with pleasurable discomfort, at the edge of convention. From there he gradually erodes predictability and maximizes the uncanny or unexpected. Daguerrotype begins replete with convention: We find Stéphane (Gourmet, sporting a mad professor goatee), a mourning photographer fixated on how his old equipment preserves life, in a moldering, dilapidated mansion in the outskirts of Paris. His wife has died—under mysterious circumstances—and his distant, doe-eyed daughter Marie (Constance Rousseau) is now taking her place as subject in a posture forced and held by a Cronenbergian apparatus while she awaits the daguerreotype’s long exposure. (The film’s original title translates to "The Secret of the Dark Room.") Enter the photographer’s naive new assistant, Jean (Tahar Rahim), who thinks little of his boss’s metaphysics or his pretty daughter, passingly notes a door or two in the house that creaks open on its own volition, and is otherwise pleased to find a job in the impoverished suburbs. Thus the elements are in place for something scary: a dead wife, zombie-ish ingenue, and an old house languishing into torpor, all watched over by a philosophical artist crazed with ideas about chemistry and photo-alchemy capturing life.

Yet perhaps inspired by his new surroundings, and developing the tone of his unfairly forgotten, otherworldly romance Journey to the Shore (2015), Kurosawa keeps the horror at bay and instead infuses his film with lyrical sensitivity and a wryly developed but nevertheless touching romance reminiscent of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Helped by Grégoire Hetzel’s score, which grows more lush and Vertigo-like after a sinister accident and beguilingly spectral car ride gently intertwines the assistant and the daughter’s fates together, Daguerrotype gracefully shifts before our eyes from the eerie to the haunted, from fear to obsession. Our surrogate is Jean—with his growing enchantment with Marie and disconnection from reality—and Tahar Rahim’s unexpectedly modest, tender performance that remains imperturbable despite the ominous permeating each and every scene.

Doubling down on genre expectations like Stéphane’s grand experiments in photo-resurrection or a frantic elopement are not what the film is after. Rather, it sets up its terms early—including tantalizing murmurs of the eco-consciousness and paranoia of the director’s great Charisma in Marie’s awe-filled botany and a subplot conspiracy to buy the mansion and turn it into a development—and then lets us sink into the atmosphere. A seeping swathe of grief, a spooky manor, lonely souls, the discomfort of photography’s lifelike aura, and the muted desire to escape inevitable circumstances: all are delicately held by the film conventions. Kurosawa’s greatest attribute is his beguiling ability to conjure cinematic spaces that ache: in their emptiness, their organic decay, their oneiric strangeness, their powerful pull on sensitive souls, impinging their sense of reality. These movies carry the writhing double feeling that either the world is corroding from our presence or that reality’s mask is gradually being leeched away—or, somehow, both at once. This is why it’s a flush pleasure for Daguerrotype and its entropic world to evolve into a forlorn romance, a dream sweet, diaphanous and doomed, dissipating before our eyes.

I spoke with the director on the eve of the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Thank you to Momo Kano Podolsky for her translation.

NOTEBOOK: Daguerrotype's script is an original one you wrote. Can you tell me about its conception?

KUROSAWA: The genesis of it actually goes back twenty years ago. It really took me a long time to make this movie. At first, I got an offer from an English producer to make a horror film in the U.K. That was the time when Japanese horror as a genre was really taking off, so that's when I conceived the idea in the first place. What happened after was that I sort of forgot about it, because the project didn't end up happening. Five years ago I got another offer, from a French producer this time, to make a movie in France. He asked me if I had any original scripts made for a movie to be shot overseas. I thought, "okay, I have that one from back when the U.K. idea was going on," so I showed it to the French producer, who said we could use that one.

NOTEBOOK: Several of your recent films—PenanceJourney to the Shore and your other film this year, Creepy—all are adaptations. What is different for you creatively when working from an original script?

KUROSAWA: For one thing, in Japan it's really difficult these days to make a movie from an original script. They don't really let me do that any more, because it wouldn't be viable commercially. If it's for my own pleasure, than maybe—but certainly not on a commercial basis. So, I think that this project happened because it was a French project and I couldn't have done it in Japan. It was a very valuable, precious opportunity for me. As far as making the actual movie, I find that once I start shooting it's not really a big difference whether it's from an original script or an adaptation. In that sense, there's not much of a difference. When I make a movie in Japan and I have some kind of work that I'm adapting, I tend to choose works that are not that well-known, so it means I actually do a fair bit of re-writing, so at that point it really becomes my script. I can do this because it's not a very well-known work, right? If it's a bestseller that everybody knows, then I couldn't be allowed to do that. 

NOTEBOOK: There's an irony in Daguerrotype that the photographer is obsessed with film photochemically capturing humans—but your film is, I assume, shot digitally. And in fact, you've often shot on video. I'm curious to know if you think there is a difference in capturing something before the camera using celluloid photography and digital photography? 

KUROSAWA: It is digital, yes. I actually never thought about the irony between me shooting in digital and the theme that you mention, so I couldn't really talk about that as a theme of this movie. But I personally think that in this day and age, whether it's a digitally or analog way, shooting a movie itself is becoming an anachronism. It's almost to the point that I consider making a movie at the same level as making a myth, as a daguerrotype. I would like to expand on this, how I see moviemaking as a daguerrotype-type of process. Because if you think about it, a lot of directors, not just me, even though we are shooting digitally, just to make one cut—how much time we devote! We don't really ask the actors to be fixed in one of those contraptions [in the movie], but we ask them to stand there and do this, do that, pose; and we spend sometimes over two hours to make a ten second shot. So in that sense, every time we do that, we're believing—we have to trust ourselves—that something miraculous is going to happen and we're going to be able to capture that. I think that everybody, including the spectators and not just the directors, understand that this in itself is a very precious thing that we're doing—and it's a miracle. That's why I think it's anachronistic. Most people, nowadays, have cellphones that can make a movie themselves, right? But that's not what we're about. 

NOTEBOOK: I was quite touched in the film by the relationship between Jean and Marie, "the girl in the dark room." It reminded me very much of Journey to the Shore. Neither of these movies are horror movies; they are both ghost stories that turn into romances, in a way. Do you see a connection between romance and being haunted? 

KUROSAWA: As I mentioned already, this movie is based on a story I conceived twenty years ago—that's a really long time ago! At that time, you could classify it simply as a horror movie. But many years have passed, and now making a movie in France, this opportunity to make a movie in France...within myself I decided that I'm not really satisfied to make a movie that's just in the horror genre. Horror, if you will, deals with death. In me, in my head, really, death is always to be paired with love. It's the opposite. In recent years, I've had more of a motivation to deal not just with death, but on the opposite side there should be love in my film. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of this balance between death and love, this film also features a balance between death and nature. It reminded me of your film Charisma, with Marie's botany, the focus on nurturing plants, the threat of urban development. How did this aspect of plant life and re-development come into the story? The nurturing of life, in one way, with the daughter and her plants, versus her father's preservation of life in different way.

KUROSAWA: First of all, thank you very much for your insight. I'm very grateful that you're making such a deep remark after watching my movie. Really, when I started conceiving this idea of the story I wasn't really thinking so much, intentionally, about plants and the greenhouse. If you remember, I've actually shot many movies with greenhouses and plants, so perhaps it sort of comes out of me unintentionally—it's in me and it comes out naturally. When I was conceiving the character for Marie that's the idea I came upon, to have her deal with the greenhouse and the plants, so you may be surprised but it wasn't really intentional. 

NOTEBOOK: The film begins in a very archetypal way, of a young man entering this mysterious household. There's a sort of mad professor father, there's the beautiful daughter—and you think it's going to be his story, alone: how he enters this strange world. But, surprisingly, you spend time with all the characters seperately. It's more an ensemble story than a single journey.

KUROSAWA: You are very right, it does start like an archetypical horror film, with the young man starting out discovering things. That's because this is based on my story that I wrote twenty years ago, and at that time I thought, "okay, this is going to be a British movie, so what do you think of British horror?" It is gothic horror. I wanted to make something that was not like a Japanese horror movie. I wanted to go into that British tradition, which is how the introductory part was conceived, and I kept that—that's what you saw. But then, because this is a brand new project, in a way, as a French movie, I started altering the original idea and this is what I ended up with.

NOTEBOOK: This started out as a project for the U.K., and I see the gothic, haunted house story quite vividly. What inspired you about the new French setting and how did this change your original conception into this new film? 

KUROSAWA: The influence from France that I got was...well, if you start from the beginning, I don't really know myself, why France! But once I started shooting and thinking about a specifically French project—okay, so France, 1960s, a nouvelle vague kind of movie, with a theme of young couple, a man and a woman. This is a love story tinged with crime. Bit by bit, the couple become dropouts, marginalized from society—because of the criminal aspect. That was in the back of my mind and inspired me from France.

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