Ninth Gate, The (France-Spain, 1999) ***
Produced and directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Enrique Urbizu, John Brownjohn, Polanski, from the novel "El Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Photography, Darius Khondji. Editing, Herve de Luze. Production design, Dean Tavoularis. Music, Wojciech Kilar. Cast: Johnny Depp ( Dean Corso), Frank Langella (Boris Balkan), Lena Olin (Liana Telfer), Emmanuelle Seigner (The Girl), Barbara Jefford ( Baroness Kessler), Jack Taylor (Victor Fargas), Jose Lopez Rodero (Pablo and Pedro Ceniza), James Russo (Bernie), et al. Released (USA) by Artisan Entertainment. 133 minutes. R (sex and violence)
Black humor seems to be, among other characteristics, in the genes of director (and writer and actor) Roman Polanski--but that's a speculation. What is certain is that his childhood and youth were marked by dark events. He was born in Paris (1933) in a Jewish-Polish family which, in 1936, made the wrong choice of returning to Poland. That's where the German attack of September 1, 1939 started World War II. In 1941 Roman's parents were sent to a concentration camp where his mother died. The boy escaped the Cracow ghetto, meandered in the country taking refuge in Catholic families. His survival would make a fascinating film, but as a filmmaker Polanski has referred directly to the savagery of war in just one short movie.
How he became a major cineaste is also a fascinating tale. I'll skip it, except to say that three aspects of his "oeuvre," anguish, alienation and absurdism, were often accompanied by a sense of the comedic (cf. the parody "The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck")
In America Polanski's fame came with the Hollywood movie "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). The following year, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and others were murdered by the Manson "family" In 1974 came the triumph of "Chinatown" and in 1977 the scandal (the statutory rape of a 13-year old model) which had Polanski flee to Europe. His subsequent films there were the hit "Tess"; " Pirates" which justly bombed; the underrated, Hitchcockian "Frantic"; the quirky "Bitter Moon"; the powerful "Death and the Maiden. "
"The Ninth Gate" may not be epoch-making, but it is better than it may seem at first sight, especially if one does not view it simply as "horror" (the wrong pigeonhole), but as a black humor fantasy. Bear in mind that the film is a simplification of a novel otherwise impossible to adapt.
New York City's Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a kind of book detective, an agent with impressive knowledge who searches for valuable rare old books. He's also a con-meister who tries to buy cheap and resell very high.
The opening sequence (after a marvelous list of credits) is of A+ caliber. Corso visits a wealthy but naive couple to appraise the collection of their old father, now a wheelchair-bound vegetable. In the process, Corso purchases for himself a rare "Don Quijote" for a ridiculously low sum. Note how the old man's face--he is aware of the book's value but is unable to communicate--expresses his feelings. This is one of the several good moments of the film, details that keep it going through thick and thin.
New York is shown in "film noir" terms, disturbing, ominous. It was terrifically recreated in European studios. Corso is summoned by a client, zillionaire Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) who has a haughtily sinister side and whose name recalls Transylvanian vampirism. Balkan is a high-power demonology lover whose collection (protected by high tech) of books on Satan is world class. He has recently bought "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows" from another collector, the aged Telfer who then hanged himself. That's a priceless book, with nine etchings, published in Venice in the mid 1600s. The story goes that its author Aristide Torchia (who signs his engravings AT) was assisted by Satan and paid for this on the stake.
Balkan has tried some magic via the book (some sort of Renaissance voodoo? ) but it didn't work. Knowing that the volume is one of three extant, he commissions Corso to examine the other two books, in Portugal and in Paris, for a huge fee--undisclosed and regularly increased. He trusts him with his copy which, wrapped in chamois and placed in a leather bag will accompany Corso's every step. (The bag may someday go for thousands at a movie memorabilia auction)
For safety, Corso deposits the volume at his collaborator Bernie's rare-book shop. The defly deftly sketched relationship of the two men is one of the several reasons to see the movie.
The investigation begins. It is high powered. It is also high camp. If you take the film and its mumbo-jumbo seriously, you're on the wrong track. Polanski's tongue-in-cheek treatment spills out all over the place.
Does the plot make sense? No. Is it amusing? Yes--in spite of Bernie getting mysteriously killed and hung just as in one of the volume's etchings. Enter the young and sexy widow Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) who is after the book her late husband had sold Balkan.
As in private eye thrillers she tries seducing Corso. No need to alert you to her raised skirt, but do notice the thigh's cabalistic tattoo of a snake biting his own tail. Vigorous sex terminates when Corso gets bumped on the cranium. It's Hollywood film noir again. Except for a clever shot of the man coming back to life with his eyes double printed on the film. Another striking, fugitive moment.
The search for the two other copies escalates. It leads to Spain, Portugal and France. Corso is indefatigable, shows extraordinary stamina and remains unruffled. Johnny Depp is remarkable in the cool way he plays his part, even more impertubably than the three major Philip Marlowes: Bogart, Mitchum and Dick Powell. And like the private investigators of old he punctuates his sleuthing with smoking Lucky Strikes and drinking scotch. The permanent joke however is that Depp, hairdo, mustache, goatee and glasses is a dead ringer for a more manicured Leon Trotsky!
Involved in his search is a pretty, nameless and most mysterious young woman (The Girl) played by Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner. She pops up all over the map, does strange things, keeps super-cool, rescues Corso more than once and joins forces with him. I cannot reveal more.
More pleasantries include twin brothers Ceniza (the name symbolically means ashes) Spanish book specialists played by one actor (great special effects); a Dennis Rodman-like goon; a one-armed old Baroness in a wheelchair. A passionate bibliophile, she competes with hated Balkan, owns another copy of the book, has a forbidding secretary (the latter is used as a nice red herring ). Corso, in a devilish hurry, opens the outer door to the Baroness's place--but he does not shut it. A mistake, as film fans will attest.
The good moments are many, especially when they deal with books, their inspection and their collectors' passion. Corso's discoveries of etchings initialed LCF (Lucifer) are sort of silly fun. But the film does suffer from unclarities and disorientations. When the investigator takes a cab to Victor Fargas--an impoverished Portuguese aristocrat who owns one of the "Nine Gates," the road looks like a typical tree-lined French one. Fargas's English accent is an un- Portuguese hybrid. Later,to follow another car, Corso instantly and incredibly hijacks a half-million dollar sports convertible that a super-wealthy Arab and his Parisian chick have left for hotel personnel to park. The chase is fun and funny, but leads to an improbable chateau which is hosting a huge coven of high society witches, all unlikely devil-worshippers about to have an orgy. Balkan puts an end to this.
Starting with the fast car, the film goes downhill even faster. It reaches a nadir with ridiculous episodes in another, far more ancient castle, and with an idiotic finale of sex. Even the original score by Wojciech Kilar. and the intelligent photography by Darius Khondji (*see note below) looks like a silly add-on. The third half-hour of the movie is a mess, but two out of three ain't bad. * Darius Khonji. Born in Tehran, Iran, to an Iranian father and French mother. Studied film at New York University. Among his credits: Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Stealing Beauty, Evita, Alien: Resurrection, In Dreams, The Beach.
In The Ninth Gate his imaginative camera-work avoids the horror genre's oft-used mists, soft-focus tricks or SFX gimmickry. Instead, it keeps a sharp, often deep focus and making his shots realistic and his lighting match the sets.