The Ninth Gate
Sean Rintel
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Review of Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate
16 Oct. 2000
  The pitch must have been fabulous: Roman Polanski directing Johnny Depp in an adaptation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel El Club Dumas, the bestselling supernatural detective story involving immensely rich bibliophiles murderously obsessed with three copies of a book reputed to be the key to Hell. To Artisan Entertainment (co-producers and releasers of the sleeper hit The Blair Witch Project) the project must have sounded like a license to print money combined with guaranteed critical accolades and instant cult status. The Ninth Gate would be no sleeper. Unfortunately, the realisation has not quite lived up to expectations, although the film is certainly entertaining.
  In this incarnation of the macabre detective genre to which Polanski seems irresistibly drawn, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is the anti-hero detective in the guise of a steely, resourceful and amoral rare book dealer. Corso is hired by eminent bibliophile and demonic scholar Boris Balkan (Frank Langella). Balkan has recently acquired an edition of the legendary manual of satanic invocation, "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows" from fellow collector Andrew Telfer (whose suicide the day after the sale opens the film). The book is illustrated with nine engravings that, when correctly interpreted and combined with the original text, are said to summon the Devil and open the entrance to Hell. Published in 1666, it was adapted by its Venetian author, Aristede Torchia, from a legendary book written by Satan - a transgression for which the Holy Inquisition burned Torchia at the stake and destroyed all of his works. Only three copies of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" survived: Balkan's copy and two other two copies belonging to collectors in Portugal and France. However, Balkan suspects that only one of the three volumes is authentic and he hires Corso to determine how they compare with, and contrast to, his copy. The mercenary Corso has little truck with Balkan's supernatural obsession, accepting the assignment for an undisclosed but clearly enormous paycheck.
  Corso soon realises that "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" is a magnet for the violent and the strange. At Balkan's lecture immediately prior to Corso's acceptance of the job, Corso notices a striking blonde Girl (as Emmanuelle Seigner - Polanski's wife - is credited) dressed like a student. As he explores the labyrinthine world of bibliographic obsession and satanic societies, the mysterious Girl shadows him constantly, coming to his aid as regularly as she eludes disclosing information about herself. Even before he leaves New York, Corso is seduced and then harangued by the widow Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), Corso's apartment is ransacked and his friend murdered and strung up in a fashion depicted in one of the engravings. Pursued across Europe by the Liana Telfer's bodyguard and, indeed, Balkan, Corso finds that many of the people he meets, and the situations in which he finds himself, bear uncanny resemblance's to characters and circumstances in the engravings - a factor with dangerous and eventually miraculous repercussions. As Corso solves the mystery of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" he increasingly identifies with the fixation of the three collectors, and having delivered the secret of the book to Balkan, finds himself unable to let that be the end of the matter...
  Despite being panned by many critics for its predictable storyline, wooden performances and indulgent length, there is a lot to enjoy in The Ninth Gate. Any story - especially an adaptation - can be told from a number of different viewpoints, and rather than the sustained creepy hysteria of many supernatural tales, Polanksi, his cast and his cinematographer Darius Khondji (Stealing Beauty, Evita, Se7en) have collaborated to emphasise this as a tale bibliographic obsession. The script concentrates on the book, the photography fetishises books and their colours, and the performances bring out the differences in each collector's character in bold but enjoyable caricature. Langella purrs his way through a delightfully eerie - and scene-stealing - performance as Balkan. Seigner's impassive model demeanor serves well as both mysterious and sexually provocative. Many of the cameos are worthy of note. Jack Taylor (a veteran of Hammer horror) is superb as the gracious and vulnerable scion of a formally wealthy family. Barbara Jefford (a noted Shakespearean actress contemporary of Gielgud) imbues her cackling Baroness Kessler with a dignified air that allows for a terrific shock in her death scene. Finally, in a surprise debut casting, José López Rodero - the production manager of this and an extensive list of other films - has the perfect chuckling demeanor for playing the wiley - and quite possibly satanic - twin bookbinders.
  While Dean Corso is not as memorable a character as Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson's detective in Polanski's Chinatown), Depp does an admirable job of holding his own among the Europeans - contrasting acting styles frequently bring such combinations to grief. That being said, although one does not hire Depp to produce a charismatic hero (Nick of Time demonstrated the Depp is probably not the best choice for that kind of role), his impassivity in The Ninth Gate also does not reach the caliber of subtlety that distinguished him in Dead Man or Ed Wood. His character has been criticised as being slow on the uptake - the audience is way ahead of him solving the mystery of the book - and so he is, although the upside of this is that Depp has a fantastic look of bruised confusion. This goes hand in hand with the lack of deviousness in the script itself, but just as The Ninth Gate is not generic supernatural thriller, nor does the plot appear designed to be taxing. Rather, Polanski has concentrated on the sheer joy of producing neatly unfolding cinema in the classic mold - quoting himself as much as other masters of the thriller genre. There is one of every classic kind of scene - the chase, the miraculous escape, the seduction, the chuckling informant, the fight - and a genuine sense of connection and movement (albeit slow) between them. The slow pace of changing scenes seems suitably akin to turning pages; it allows for some reflection, for time to look around the mise-en-scene, drink in the colours and to listen to the excellent score by Wojciech Kilar (The Portrait of a Lady, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Polanski's previous film, Death and the Maiden). The score is both quirky - a spiky lead played on trumpet underlined by a jaunty string accompaniment (reminiscent of the wonderful score in another Johnny Depp film, Benny and Joon) - and beautiful - stay for the closing credits.
  The film looks fabulous, photographed in increasingly red tones as Corso's journey progresses and taking great care to detail the locations. One of the best moments in the film is purely visual. Stalked by Liana Telfer's bodyguard, Depp seeks the sanctuary of a café. While day slowly turns to evening, and the bodyguard loiters, the light outside gradually fades until, at the point when dusk becomes night, the café's lights are turned on and Depp, suddenly startled by his own reflection, leans forward to see that the bodyguard has disappeared. Great care has also been taken with the three copies of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," props so beautiful that one winces at the very casual handling they receive from the characters (only Baroness Kessler refuses to let Depp smoke while reading her copy)!
  Perhaps this review concentrates on finding points of quality in a film that is, one must admit, neither as eerie nor as thought-provoking as it might have been. Then again, atrocities such as Supernova cost probably half to three times as much and are completely unsalvageable. Spend your money and keep Polanski in work.

The Ninth Gate Rating: 6.5/10


The Ninth Gate
Director/Producer: Roman Polanski
Stars: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford,
Jack Taylor, Leno Olin, José López Rodero.
Executive Producers: Wolfgang Glattes, Michel Cheyko
Based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Writers: Enrique Urbiz, Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn.
Editor: Hervé de Luze.
Cinematography: Darius Khondji.
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Art Direction: Gérard Viard
Original Music: Wojciech Kilar.

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