The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999)
[originally posted 27Mar2000]
As Polanski has become increasingly reclusive and eccentric, I’ve often wondered exactly what goes through his head when he decides to film something. I’ve been wondering it more and more over the last two decades or so, as what little output Polanski has released has become increasingly humorless, bitter, and savage, culminating in the brilliantly unstable Death and the Maiden in 1994. Something seems to have happened in the past six years, however. Polanski has given us his finest, and funniest, film since The Fearless Vampire Killers—and for much the same reasons.
There is a subgenre of film, mostly horror film (but a good number of what can only be termed “men’s adventure” flicks also fall into this category), that can best be described as “fuzzy.” Everything about them is fuzzy. The focus is just a tad off. The soundtrack sounds as if it has been recorded through a wad of cotton. The color is a little off. You know the genre. Karen Black is probably its most enduring star, and Dario Argento has directed about eight hundred fuzzy flicks. Many people see fuzzy and translate to low-quality, thus dismissing a whole subgenre of often brilliant filmmaking– Argento, Lucio Fulci, Carpenter’s early work, Wes Craven, early David Lynch, etc. But we often forget where the original fuzzy came from. Coppola and Corman got together for the classic Dementia 13 (1963), right in the middle of Polanski’s trilogy of distressing imagery (Knife in the Water, The Beautiful Swindlers, and Repulsion). It is probably from these four films, and their styles of production and direction, that this whole subgenre came about, and its first true champion recognized by a wider audience was yet another Polanski all-star extravaganza, Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
In The Ninth Gate, Polanski, who has a lot more money now, has given us the epitome of what makes fuzzy filmmaking great, but he’s ramped up the budget, attracted fantastic starpower and the highest quality of production, and essentially made a great seventies satan-worshipper film (remember Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain?) in the new century. Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a rare book mercenary of sorts, hired by the shifty-eyed Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to track down the two other remaining copies of a book Balkan now owns. Balkan is convinced that, of these three books, one is an authentic copy and two are forgeries, and Corso’s job is to discover which is the actual tome in question (and, one can assume from Balkan’s persona, to switch the fake with the authentic one, assuming Balkan has a fake).
The truth, of course, is nowhere near as simple as this, and as Corso goes on his journey, attended by the breathtakingly beautiful nameless stranger (Polanski’s present spouse, Emmanuelle Seigner) and a few people seemingly less concerned with Corso’s welfare (Lena Olin, as the widow of the original owner of Balkan’s copy of the book in question, and her bodyguard/hired hand/whatever, an unnamed character played by a chap I’ve never seen before).
The Ninth Gate also falls into another subgenre of film, and it doesn’t have a name, but when you see the film, it immediately bears comparison to others of its type– films that there are two kinds of viewers for, those who will willingly suspend all possible belief and enjoy the hell out of it, and those who just won’t get it. The film that springs immediately to mind, of course, is The Blair Witch Project, but that’s only because of recency; Cronenberg’s masterpiece of twisted illusion, Videodrome, is a much better comparison when all is said and done. Similarly to Videodrome, the viewer is always given the sensation that something is a little off, and that perhaps the real action is always going on somewhere just off camera; Depp is embroiled in the same kind of seemingly-predestined confusion as Woods (and it helps that both have this odd woman following them around and showing up in the oddest places– in Woods’ case, Debbie Harry was the vixen in question). If you thought Videodrome was a fantastic piece of work, and that James Woods turned in the performance of his career, you’ll probably walk out of The Ninth Gate feeling exactly the same way I did about it– “wow.”
There’s been a lot made, in the press, of the pace of the movie. “Johnny Depp runs around Europe looking for old books.” Sure. If you go into a Roman Polanski flick expecting something that could have been cut from the same cloth as the Friday the Thirteenth movies, you’re bound to be disappointed. Polanski is a master of the atmospheric horror film, where the horror is more suggested than splattered, as Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, and Death and the Maiden are tribute to. Nothing less should be expected from The Ninth Gate, and Polanski delivers on all counts. This isn’t a scary film so much as it is a disturbing one, suspenseful at times (only one car chase, thankfully!), and laugh-out-loud funny at others.
Special consideration, come this time next year, should probably be given to sound and sound effects editing (the ambient soundtrack to the film is one of the better ones of recent years– if The Haunting had had this music, it would have been almost watchable) and Best Supporting Actor for a person who usually stays behind the camera, Jose Lopez Rodero, in a double role as the Brothers Ceniza. He– they– are one of the film’s many highlights, despite their small role. Cinematography here is wide and brilliant, as well; Polanski takes us on a whirlwind trip through some of Europe’s most picturesque spots, including the backstreets of Portugal (where the Cenizas’ shop lies) and a stunning collapsing villa that is the home of Victor Fargas, one of the other owners of the book in question (played handily by Jack Taylor, best known for acting in those aforementioned men’s adventure titles in Italy). Depp probably still won’t get his well-deserved Best Actor nomination, and his role doesn’t really warrant it, though the panache and humor he brings to it make it that much the finer; it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Polanski up for either Director or Adapted Screenplay, however.
It’s probably not for everyone. But if you’re a fan of atmospheric horror, and especially if you’re nuts about old, low-budget Polanski horror flicks, this will be absolutely up your alley, and should be seen at the earliest possible convenience. **** ½