The Ninth Gate (1999)
written by Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn, and Enrique Urbizu
based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
directed by Roman Polanski
I had seen this lesser-known effort from Roman Polanski at least twice before, and had always felt disappointed that the film didn’t take itself too seriously. The tale of a book “detective” of sorts (Johnny Depp) who becomes enmeshed in a mystery involving satanic cults, obsessed collectors, and an ancient volume entitled The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, it just never quite worked for me… and I really like satanic cults! But I digress.
Seeing it again after several years, I finally realized that it really is in keeping with Polanski’s twisted sense of humor – particularly as part of his late 80’s and 90’s output which includes Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992), and Death and the Maiden (1994). The Ninth Gate is not only a supernatural genre movie, it’s also a send-up of the genre.
There are many layers at play here, the first of which is a sly nod to pulp detective novels. Depp’s character, Dean Corso, is a droll, oily dealer of rare books who’s only interested in profits. Does he actually like books? Probably, but not as much as the money he can make from selling them. In a way, he’s also a counterpart to Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Polanski’s own Chinatown (1974), always one step behind, never really understanding what’s going on. And if you’re not convinced, just listen to that bumbling musical theme composer Wojciech Kilar has created for Corso, all quirky strings and bass. Corso’s a fool, and the movie makes it clear from the very beginning.
Then there’s the whole satanic thingamajig. Corso is after a rare 17th-century book that, legend has it, can summon the Devil himself. The film decidedly plays this hocus-pocus both ways: it has scenes of well-orchestrated dread (the opening sequence where a man matter-of-factly gets up on a chair and hangs himself) and moments filled with black humor (Frank Langella screaming “Boo!” at a bunch of fake Satanists is pretty awesome).
Even Lucifer himself (or is it herself?) makes an appearance in the form of Emmanuelle Seigner, playing a mysterious woman who helps Corso in his journey and ultimately claims his soul. She also has sex with him. With fire burning in the background. Nice!
In fact, part of the fun is realizing that has been the Devil’s plan all along: Corso is the only one so morally bankrupt, so devoid of real purpose, as to warrant membership into hell. All the other would-be Satanists are only in it for their own personal power… and that doesn’t sit well with Old Scratch.
It’s all a tad overlong and somewhat haphazard in tone. But it is devilishly (pardon the pun) entertaining. It’s always a pleasure to watch Polanski at play, especially when he adds details such as the Devil reading a copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People. And in Depp, he finds a great collaborator, all deadpan underplaying and bemused looks. The Ninth Gate is an underrated ditty in both artists’ repertoire.
Carlos I. Cuevas