The main reason people are so afraid of ghosts must be that they make such bad movies about them. Latest example of this being Le secret de la chambre noire, a movie by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (a name no filmmaker could ever live up to), wherein he brings his Japanese sensibility for the supernatural to a Parisian suburb in such a clichéd and predictable way that only the brief glimpses of what are perceived to be unintentional humor can awaken us from our lethargy-induced state of boredom.
We follow average Jean (Tamar Rahim) during his all too slow descent into a world where nothing is what it seems to be after he accepts a position as the assistant of a has-been fashion-photographer (Olivier Gourmet) who’s preferred modus operandi is the daguerreotype he snobbishly refers to as “the only real photography”. This movie being French and – you know – a movie, there’s has to be a girl too, right? Her name is Marie (Constance Rousseau) and next to being the artist’s daughter she could also be a ghost or not. During the overlong two hour running time this spectral possibility is constantly toyed around with in ways that are far less clever than the movie thinks they are until, spoiler alert, nobody cares anymore. The prevailing conversation topic after the screening will not be the mystery at the center of this narrative but the age-old question if you would have sex with a ghost and what that would mean in terms of physics and issues of birth control.
Spectrophilia aside, the movie does succeed in bequeathing a sense of beauty to the actual love scenes it has to offer; those between the artist and his materials. A hand caressing the wooden frame of a silver plate, the attention with which the bodies of the models are positioned into the sculptural poses they have to hold for at least an hour, these are the shots that gleam with attention and the love for craftsmanship that is the basis for all art. The scenes involving Marie, who aspires to be a botanist, and the plants she breeds in her cursed greenhouse, contain more chemistry than any contact she makes with her would-be lover. The only interesting humanlike relationship is that between the artist and his original muse, Denise, who has the peculiar habit of popping up out of nowhere and terrorizing her housemates by turning into a Jean Epstein reference.
In juxtaposition with its love for the daguerreotype and the references to silent movies, the film is even more obsessed with the future. The two lovers pine for a life far away from the deteriorating mansion where time has stopped its recalcitrant race and nothing can happen that hasn’t happened before, but to realize that future they have to convince the paternal artist to sell his land to a new ecological housing project. The father refuses to give up the past he belongs to in order to make way for the new generation until eventually he sees no other way than to blow his brains out. The future has been cancelled and all we are left with are the ghosts of the things we used to love, in this particular case the ghost of a cinema that meant something.