The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, James Russo, Emmanuelle Seigner.
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Meet Dean Corso (Johnny Depp): book seller; raconteur; conman extraordinaire. He capitalises on his extensive knowledge of rare books, the ignorance of those in possession of these and his skills to manipulate people. Never too busy to pass by an opportunity to increase his fortunes, he decides to look for prints of a book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows on behalf of Boris Balkan (Frank Langella). There are three known prints of this book. Balkan already owns one, and Corso has to find the others to verify their authenticity. If he believes them to be real, he must acquire them at all costs. All expenses paid!
Corso manages to track down the remaining two, and finds discrepancies in the illustrations. At first, Corso is lead to believe that the discrepancies mean the books are counterfeit. A series of unfortunate events and a female consort known only as the girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) lead him to believe the discrepancies are deliberate. The girl and Balkan seem to be locked in a race to gather all the copies of the book in order to perform diabolical rites successfully, and Corso is not sure whose pawn he is. Who will be first to open the mystical ninth gate, and is it really that much better on the other side?
Based on The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Polanski reportedly chose only one of the many sub-plots of the book for the film. In step with Pérez-Reverte's writing style, the film focuses in detail on the doings of one central character, namely that of Corso. The book is allegedly a bibliophile's dream, with references to classic literature throughout. As the title suggests, the book deals extensively with the methods of Alexander Dumas, while the film chooses to virtually ignore this link. Instead of offering a multi-faceted surreal world of endless possibilities, the Ninth Gate is the equivalent of the tunnel vision one has sliding down a water slide that runs out of water around the last bend.
While you can expect the same visual feast as in China Town, Polanski does not offer nearly the same complexity and suspense in the plot of the Ninth Gate. Upon further reading, it seems that his intention was to ridicule those who believe in the occult, while at the same time presenting a film riddled with occult references both obscure and bluntly obvious. It seems that Polanski considers his audience to consist of 15-year-olds who discovered the writings of La Vey. The film has a comic feel, and it does tend to drag at points. Some interesting concepts such as the nature of supernatural powers of the girl are treated with nonchalance, hovering somewhere between not quite explicit and not quite implicit enough, while other avenues not nearly as interesting enjoy fare too much attention. Still, with this fool's gold plot and strong performances by most actors, coupled with the fantastic score by Wojciech Kilar, the Ninth Gate is not devoid of entertainment value.
Compared with the recent outbreak of American creature features, it is refreshing to find a film nearly in the same who-dunnit tradition of Dario Argento. Polanski certainly has the experience and the flare to pull of a very stylish suspense thriller, yet somehow does not manage to do so here. It boils down to Johnny Depp to carry the film. The on-screen chemistry between him and the rest of the cast is worth watching, and the visual aspects of a Polanski film alone merits at least a second viewing. Not a bad film at all, just a poorly executed film for Polanski.