The Haunted: A Comparative Review of Oliver Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s DAGUERREOTYPE
Two of the most polarizing films of 2016 from directors with long-standing careers were about ghosts, though they weren’t strictly horror films. Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas, was reportedly booed at Cannes, and has only recently found some love, after its American theatrical release. Daguerreotype, directed by Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) received mixed reviews at festivals, and was finally released in France in February. The ghost theme isn’t the only thing that the two films have in common, as both are set mostly in Paris.
Neither film is perfect. Yet Personal Shopper has been beloved by certain cinephiles, especially because of Kirsten Stewart: As Maureen Cartwright, Stewart plays a boyish young woman who feels uncomfortable in her adopted home, France, as well in her job, as a personal shopper of a successful model. Maureen drives around Paris on her motorcycle, finding clothes and accessories for her boss, all this while coping with the recent death of her brother, while she seems to get deeper into a conspiracy that connects her boss with her boss’s former lovers. Maureen is also a medium. Since childhood, she and her brother have been able to communicate with the dead.
A less flamboyant, more meditative approach to a ghost story can be found in Daguerreotype, which stars Tahar Rahim, as a lost, awkward youngster, who stumbles into a job as an aid to a daguerreotype photographer (Olivier Gourmet). The photographer uses old equipment and long exposure to capture his portraits. We are introduced to the photographer’s daughter, who is his favorite model, and learn the backstory of the artist’s deceased wife and former sitter, who now haunts her family.
Both films feature apparitions, with varying degrees of subtleness and horror. But while the Assayas film turns, for a moment, into a fully-fledged horror film, with ectoplasm, screams and chases, Kurosawa remains more lyrical in his approach. He keeps away from genre conventions and big budget effects, instead utilizing blown-out film and blurry focus. And even though both movies present the ghastly apparitions as probable consequences of the trauma that the characters have suffered, Assayas’s film is more adamant in its actual search for the proof of the afterlife: the scenes that dispense with the POV of the main character and demonstrations of invisible movements are called forth as “proof” of the existence of ghosts.
Meanwhile, Kurosawa proves to be a skeptic. Though oblique, his film ultimately proves more unnerving. The camera moves slowly to the sides, or in and out of the scenery, as if it were about to reveal a ghost standing quietly in the background. The cinematography and the framing create contrasting areas of darkness and light in every frame, which further the idea that there’s always something there. You feel as if watching a haunted film: muted, too bright one moment, too dark the next, searching for something that is beyond the frame, as if to reveal the metaphysical world. It is unfortunate then that this very paused, muted tone in the end brings the film to a halt, in slow motion scenes that are attentive to less interesting details, such as the relationship between the protagonist and the photographer’s daughter.
By contrast, the camera work in Personal Shopper is dynamic and quick at all times, constantly following Kirsten Stewart, as she examines clothes or explores the haunted house. And yet, the constant movements do little more than advance the film’s basic plot. When, for example, Maureen travels to London and back to get some clothes for an impending charity event, the camera keeps close to Stewart’s face and movements, and to her cellphone, which constantly receives text messages from an unknown sender, who knows more about her than she initially thinks, leading her to believe that she is being subject to a paranormal activity. But the audience knows better, and the whole impeccable sequence, including fade outs and fade ins, as well as some reactions from Stewart, is completely devoid of tension.
Which makes one wonder why the Assayas film has thus far received more critical praise than the much more accomplished and better written, albeit admittedly flawed, Kurosawa film. With a work like Daguerreotype which manages to be mysterious, raise doubts about the nature of afterlife, and thrill beyond a few visual tricks, it can certainly be said that Kurosawa deserves more international recognition, enough that allows him to continue experimenting in these kind of films around the world.