The Ninth Gate
October 31, 2006
Critical and commercial reaction to Roman Polanski’s films has always been mixed at best. To say that they are an acquired taste is an understatement. The Ninth Gate (1999) is no exception. Despite what the film’s misleading trailer promoted at the time of its initial release, it is not a straight-forward supernatural thriller but rather showcases the auteur in a darkly humorous mood as he plays around with the conventions of this genre.
Dean Corso (Depp) is an unscrupulous book dealer whose motivation is purely for financial gain. He swindles a naïve couple from a set of rare and priceless books in an amusing scene that sets up his character beautifully. A very rich book collector by the name of Boris Balkan (Langella) hires Corso to validate his recently purchased copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, one of only three copies that exist in the world. The book contains nine engravings which, when correctly deciphered and the interpretations properly spoken, are supposed to conjure the Devil. Balkan believes that only one book is authentic so he hires Corso to track down each copy and verify their authenticity.
It seems like a simple enough task but as Corso soon finds out, someone does not want him to complete the job. He crosses paths with an odd assortment of characters, from a mysterious woman (Seigner) who seems to help him in his quest, to another, more obviously evil, woman, Laina Telfer (Olin) intent on impeding his progress and quite possibly trying to kill him.
Polanski’s film is based on El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. The novel featured several intertwined plots and contains numerous literary references including a subplot concerning Corso’s investigation into an unpublished chapter of The Three Musketeers. The film jettisons these elements and focuses on one particular plot line: Corso’s pursuit of the authentic copy of The Nine Gates.
While the film’s slow, deliberate pacing turned off many, there is a method to Polanski’s madness. The gradual pacing draws one into this engaging world. Perhaps it is the European setting but The Ninth Gate has an otherworldly atmosphere that is well done. The attention to detail and Darius Khondji’s richly textured cinematography is exquisite and contributes to the overall mood of this vivid world. For example, the New York City scenes have a very 1940s vibe to them, utilizing brown and blacks with a warm gold glow from the street lamps. This is, in turn, contrasted with the green and red in the phone booth when Corso is trying to contact Balkan.
However, The Ninth Gate does not just have atmosphere going for it. Johnny Depp adds yet another intriguing character to his roster of unconventional roles. Corso is an unethical cheat who would do anything to make a buck. A rival describes him as a “vulture” and “unscrupulous” to which he freely admits to as he swindles four volumes of a rare edition of Don Quixote. He really does not care about others and yet, despite all of his reprehensible qualities, Depp’s natural charisma and charm make him kind of an endearing character that you care more about as he delves deeper into dangerous waters.
Balkan is a pompous windbag filled with self-importance but Frank Langella stops just short of being a cliched, moustache-twirling villain. He’s melodramatic and his presence is a nod to horror fans who recall his most famous role in Dracula (1979). Lena Olin’s dangerous Telfer widow evokes her femme fatale character from Romeo is Bleeding (1993). She smokes and even flashes a suggestive shot of her black garter-clad thighs in an attempt to seduce Corso and draw him into her web. She uses sex to get what she wants and when that fails she resorts to violence, attacking him in an animalistic frenzy. This movie is ample with clues, a puzzle waiting to be solved. For example, in Balkan’s lecture at the beginning of the movie, he suggests that all witches are evil and in league with Satan. The irony is that Corso sleeps through this important clue to Balkan’s real intentions. There is also the odd, disregard for The Book of Shadows, a tome worth an estimated $1 million. It is placed in constant peril and is even flicked with ash when the Ceniza brothers analyze it.
As for the cliché aspects of the film, one should be less concerned at anticipating plot twists and predictable elements in favor of simply enjoying the ride. Polanski probably was aware of this and decided to have fun with them. There is Balkan’s “666” password, Corso’s perchance for getting the crap kicked out of him, and the one-armed woman (Jefford) book dealer that all contribute to a playful mood that punctuates the film whenever it runs dangerously close to being too pretentious or self-important. The film has a playful tone but Polanski knows when to rein things in. As the horror is heightened so is the film’s dark comedy during the climatic moments. The screenplay is in perfect synchronicity with the direction.
The Ninth Gate was a refreshing change from the trend of mundane Hollywood supernatural schlock at the time (i.e. The Bone Collector, Stigmata, End of Days, and et al.) that took itself way too seriously and tried too hard. Unlike those films, The Ninth Gate never falls into that trap. It contains some truly vintage Polanski black humor that, alas, North American audiences and critics alike did not appreciate. They wanted meat and potatoes filmmaking that he has always resisted in favor of subversive thrills and following his own muse come hell or high water.
There is an audio commentary by director Roman Polanski. For legal reasons he can’t set foot in America so, he explains how they used a combination of rear projection plates, clever set design with sets to create the illusion of the opening scenes taking place in New York City. He says that Johnny Depp was his first choice to play Corso but had reservations about the actor’s age (his character was supposed to be older) so he had him grow a goatee and add a hint of white to his temples. Polanski touches upon the source material and how it was initially considered unfilmable because of its numerous subplots and secondary characters. He read a draft that got him interested but after reading the book he decided to rework the screenplay with John Brownjohn. The director does a decent job covering many aspects of his film (set direction, costumes, acting, cinematography and locations) and how they contribute to his vision. He speaks methodically and with a noticeable accent but eloquently and in a way that is always understandable.
Another nice touch is an isolated music score so that one can listen to Wojciech Kilar’s atmospheric music without dialogue and sound effects getting in the way.
Also included are a theatrical trailer and two T.V. spots.
There is also a way-too brief making of featurette (that clocks in at mediocre two minutes) with soundbites from Polanski, Depp and Langella with bad heavy metal music playing over footage from the movie.
There are nice bios on key cast and crew members.
The “Production Notes” almost make up for the lack of a making of featurette with a fairly decent overview of the production.
There are “Storyboard Selections” for six scenes that allow one to see sketches and excerpts from the screenplay.
Finally, there is a “Gallery of Satanic Drawings,” featuring both versions of each engraving of the nine engravings from all three Nine Gates books with their corresponding inscriptions. This is a really nice touch and best extra on this disc after Polanski’s commentary.