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The Ninth Gate Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 15, 2009

    The Ninth Gate Review

    “There's nothing more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.”

    Back when it came out theatrically, a decade ago now, this was a film that I had been looking forward to immensely. Roman Polanski had certainly proved his uncanny affiliation with dark cinema over the years with classic psychological chillers such as Repulsion and The Tenant, demented horror satire like Dance Of The Vampires (deliciously creepy as well as amusing) and even hit an occult high-point with the influential cult hit of Rosemary's Baby, so a tale chronicling the doomed quest of a cynical book dealer to round up the three existing copies of a centuries-old tome about the Devil for a mysteriously obsessive client, and the death and terror that ensues from such diabolical detective work, should have been a dead cert for sweaty palms and shudders. But the resulting film of The Ninth Gate, based upon a 1999 novel, was nothing short of a disastrous con-trick. A thorough disappointment on practically every level, I found Polanski's devilish thriller a complete chore to sit through and firm proof that modern theological works of fear stubbornly refuse to work any more. The Devil's Advocate, anyone? Then again, to lump that old tosh and The Ninth Gate in the same sort of category as The Exorcist, The Omen, Angel Heart , Inferno - which this sometimes appears to emulate - or even Polanski's own Rosemary's Baby is possibly tarnishing those perennially worthwhile projects with a dirty label that they certainly do not deserve. Now, I was hoping to have some sort of epiphany with this, some freshly uncovered gem of inspiration, a concept, a character beat or a narrative nuance that I had previously overlooked - just something to allow this re-appraisal to be worthwhile.

    But alas, the Devil makes work for idle reviewers and sadly, finding nothing to deter me from my original views, I have no alternative but to compile a catalogue of the reasons why The Ninth Gate is best left shut.

    Based on the novel “El Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez-Reverte and adapted by Roman Polanski, himself, along with fellow screenwriters Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn, The Ninth Gate surrounds itself with what its makers would love to have been a delicious combination of detective noir and occult horror overtones. Like many diabolical mysteries, it takes as its gravitational source a book that, rather like the Necromonicon, is a darkly taboo Maguffin that promises power to those who can decipher it (or should that be Lou-cipher it, as a certain Harry Angel might observe?) and the means to summon the Devil. Whether or not this power actually exists is all rather superfluous as its immediate effect is to make those that do believe in its blackly esoteric magic go, well, rather insane in their zeal and devotion. Thus, as with most demoniacal genre offerings, the real threat is far more human than you might have hoped.

    When the mysterious and obsessive tycoon Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) recruits the weaselly Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) to find the only two other copies of a dark and dangerous 17th Century book, The Nine Gates Of The Shadow Kingdom, to help him ensure that his own copy, recently obtained rather dubiously from the suicide victim we see hanging himself in the film's opening scene, is the genuine original and priceless article, a series of increasingly dangerous, possibly supernatural events begin. Corso, with seemingly inexhaustible funds from Balkan, is compelled to travel from New York to Europe in order to track down those who own the other copies and compare their pages, their print and their content to the purported original. In so doing, Corso uncovers the sick and demented meaning behind the book's satanic text, the infernal power under which it holds its disciples and the evil lengths that certain mysterious rogues will go to in order to keep him from discovering its secrets. Whilst his job is mainly composed of interviews with various interested parties, and pleas to allow him access to their copies, Corso ends up playing a much more pivotal role as events escalate and veer murderously out of control. Somebody is breathing down his neck every step of the way and snuffing out every lead he gets. Somebody is making attempts on his life. And it becomes very clear that somebody knows a whole lot more about The Nine Gates and its diabolical power than they are letting on. As his personal odyssey gets ever more complicated and his very life becomes threatened, Corso is forced to confront the demonic nature of those who believe in the Devil and to face an eventuality that even he never dreamed possible.

    The film is predictably slow and meandering, though this is not necessarily a flaw and certainly not something that should derail a plot so completely as it appears to do so here. Corso trots around picturesque Europe, but instead of allowing the dread importance of the book and what it ultimately means to those he meets, Polanski foolishly punctuates the proceedings with god-awful slayings - we mostly see only the aftermaths - and some wretched action courtesy of the man-faced Emmanuelle Seigner (Mrs. Roman Polanski), who performs some ill-fitting martial arts and even floats down staircases and fascinates with spectrally glowing emerald eyes. That we can clearly foresee her, ahem, role in the overall story seems to elude Polanski, who likes to assume that we are as thick as Depp's book-spook.

    Just before his great and foppish faint-athon in Sleepy Hollow as the headless horseman-hunting Ichabod Crane, and certainly before his now-iconic Captain Jack Sparrow sailed the seven seas and took the world by storm, Johnny Depp, who was always a bankable name, incidentally, made a couple of severe movie blunders. One was the appalling SF take on Rosemary's Baby, The Astronaut's Wife, and the other was this tripe, which may be the better of the two, but is still a severe let-down for fans of the hugely personable, occasionally maverick star. Yet it is not that he does anything in here that is clearly bad or identifiably unprofessional. He just does not bring any substance to the character. Two hours of plodding around in his shoes reveals nothing to us about his inner workings. We aren't meant to like him, yet there is little on show to have us dislike him either. He simply exists. But, most crucially of all, we just don't accept Depp as being this world-renowned book dealer/investigator. He strains at giving us the mechanics of his modus operandi - listening to the flutter of a book's pages to ascertain its authenticity, poring over treasured leafs with a magnifying glass - but delivers nothing that would have us believe that he was anything other than a film star playing at being a rare books expert. Chain-smoking and drifting through cosmopolitan ports of call, we are also supposed to believe that certain hoteliers hold him in such high esteem that they are willing to do little clandestine favours for him, but I find it impossible to buy into. Although having essayed all manner of people by the time he made this - Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Gilbert Grape, Donnie Brasco - Depp also looks much too young to be sporting those little wisps of bookish grey at the sides and, although he has always been a real-life advert for facial hair decoration, that little goatee beard looks like something that he just cut off the back of a cat and then stuck on his chin. The effect, I'm surprised to say, is like watching a little boy play-acting at being a grown-up. As big a fan of the actor as I am, his attempts at bringing Dean Corso to life are woeful.

    Even Frank Langella, who can be stiff and rather daft at times, fails to imbue his enigmatic Balken with the appropriate air of sinister charm. Merely a big, brooding hulk in this, he offers none of that eloquently macabre and baroque aristocracy that he is so capable of. Suddenly his turn as Dracula seems a very, very long time ago. Here, as the demonologist book collector with a distinctly distasteful ulterior motif, he oozes little menace or depravity, despite the fact that we know from the get-go that he can't be up to any good. However, I do like the way in which he manages to completely avoid telling Corso where he is each time that he speaks to his foot-soldier over the phone, Corso instinctively tuned in to the fact that he can't be all that far away from him at any given time. Langella, better at observing from the sidelines and maintaining his ambiguity, completely ruins the finale with a patently absurd last-minute plot-rush.

    But we shouldn't just foist the blame for the lack of spectacle and thrills on the boys. Oh no. We also have two ladies dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight. The aforementioned Emmanuelle Seigner as a supposed student - “of sorts” - who keeps cropping up whenever Corso needs a helping hand, provides us with a truly oddball performance. Polanski never seems quite sure what he wants from her and, as a consequence, we are never sure what it is that we are meant to understand about her involvement in the whole farrago. However, we aren't stupid and her role, as badly put together as it is, is absolutely transparent, mismatched socks or not. Then there is Lena Olin who, at least, has the decency to proffer some classy raunch to the proceedings as the wife of the suicidal book owner we saw at the start. Her part in the scheme is also all-too obvious and, despite keeping the attention whenever she is on-screen, she and Polanski allow her character to be blunderingly mistreated by the end ... with a massive “so what?” hanging over her final resolution.

    Which, basically, goes for everyone in this convoluted, but aimless mess. We just don't care about them in the first place, or what happens to them come the end.

    A certain amount of disbelief suspension is essential for any fantasy, but alongside this there must also be parameters that make the fictional world realistic within its own guidelines. Having Corso travelling all over the place and leaving dead bodies wherever he goes - well, three, at any rate - would incur the interest of the authorities. Now, I'm not saying that a portion of the script should detail any Columbo-style Q & A from the gendarmes, but the film makes it look as though he can move about the world with total impunity. Even Daniel Craig's blonde Bond can't do that. But Corso leaves crime-scenes repeatedly without the movie making even the slightest gesture to the implications of such an act - innocent or not. This sort of thing - Devils, detective-work - was dealt with brilliantly by Alan Parker in the classic Angel Heart. Polanski's film, on the other hand, botches virtually every element.

    We don't necessarily need killings or gore. The Devil and his workings can be just as equally disturbing - probably more so, actually - when waging a psychological war. Yet, The Ninth Gate wants us to be afraid of the book and those who are out to protect it, and sundry deaths do occur. However, they are lax, unseen and shorn of anything even remotely resembling interest, unease or suspense. Red herrings aplenty dog the scenario. We have skulduggery of a much more physical and intimidating form - a boringly Euro-trash type heavy that lurks ineptly at the edge of Corso's investigations. But the clumsy attempts made to curtail the book-detective's activities are eye-rollingly stupid and the sense of genuine threat that Corso feels is irretrievably undermined when he simply sits in a bar and waits - just waits- for the apparent hit-man who followed him there to leave his watchful perch right outside the window before fleeing the scene. Huh? Okay, Corso's hardly an action man, so purposely taking the guy on would never be an option but, considering the apparent danger that he is in, why not call the cops, or just ask for help? The film has many such moments of head-scratching idiocy that, coupled with Polanski's wholesale inability to construct a narrative that actually flows properly - here, we have scenes and encounters that often end on bewilderingly unfinished anti-climaxes - makes for a totally unsatisfying approach to storytelling. Ironically, of course, bad plotting and nonsensical narratives are the hallmark of many European horror films - Argento, Fulci, Bava, Rollin etc can hardly escape this style-over-coherence tag, themselves - but Roman Polanski is not one of these enfants terrible. He is an accomplished filmmaker who has both style and intelligence when it comes to his plot construction - just look at the magnificent Chinatown - so this slapdash form is unforgivable.

    Okay, so we've ascertained that once a film is damned by a plot that unravels itself, characters that just aren't credible in any way and a denouement that would be laughable if is wasn't, frankly, so deathly dull, there is nothing that is going to save it from the abyss it so rightly belongs in, but there are, however, a couple of things that do go in The Ninth Gate's favour. The first, and most noticeable, would the terrifically brooding score from Wojciech Kilar. Clearly still in the same zone as when he composed for Coppola's flamboyant Dracula interpretation - the scores both share a great many similarities - Kilar is about the only person involved with the film who truly attempts to evoke some occultism and dread. Ominously heavy chords swell around the plot, whilst Corso's own theme is a playful, Machiavellian ditty that seems to find some energy for the character that Depp does not. But, most amusingly of all, he delivers what would be a wonderfully bravura sequence for the final act's flaming set-piece, with its thunderous drive and fierce male choir, except that the voices of The City Of Prague Philharmonic Choir actually seem to be chanting, at one point, “Here-he-comes ... he's really put his foot in it” - which, even if the scene wasn't so limp, would possibly serve only to deflate any tension therein. Still, Kilar does create a semi-classical work of dark and sinister Mephistophelean richness.

    The second plus point is the sublime cinematography from Darius Khondji that paints the European locations with a great sense of mood and atmosphere. The camera floats around Depp and there are some wonderful tracking shots and slow zooms - the scene in a crippled old lady's library when the camera slyly and slowly glides up behind Corso is very nicely done - when the immaculate set-dressings and evocative compositions seem to come to mesmerising life. But, as we have seen, such work is often derailed by the actual things that the scenes are showing us. A descent down some stone steps at gunpoint is rendered utterly naff by the daft action that follows - an absurd escape from an assassin as lame as something out of an old Bulldog Drummond episode. Some clumsy visual effects during the final confrontation actually don't ruin what is an eerily decorative castle setting, however, and there is always something entrancing about seeing old, leather-bound books amassed for inspection across the screen.

    Full of earnest mood-setting, yet utterly bereft of even the most minimal of tension, The Ninth Gate scuppers its own dark heart. Considering the ripe reputation of the book and its effects on those who seek to worship the Devil, the film's token gesture at sexuality is perfunctory and seems shoehorned-in. Only the menacing/playful score is any good at referencing the decadence and debauchery that such a past-time seems to inspire, I'm afraid. No, I can't find a way around the fact that the film is a clunker that raises titters rather than hackles. Polanski simply didn't have a clue with this one, by the looks of things.

    There are, indeed, many people out there who clearly love this movie and like to berate critics for their generally negative stance on it, but The Ninth Gate is still undeniably dull and often quite dumb. The supposed layers of subtext and hidden meaning that its defenders love to spout about are anything but layered or hidden - the film Polanski made is as plain as the nose on your face, or the horns on your head. I, personally, find nothing at all clever about the “who's who” and the “what's what” of how it all comes together. You really would have to be an idiot not to guess, almost immediately, everybody's role in the drama and the whole “devil in plain sight” angle is rendered null and void by its virtual signposting. Subtle clues aren't merely hinted at, they're positively sledgehammered, and the imagery is about as profound as an empty fish-tank.

    Masterpieces - aye, he's created few of them in his time. But this ain't one of them.

    Take the dark detective work of Angel Heart and the twisty-turning suspicions of Chinatown ... and stick with them, because this dreary drudge of Satanic soup is more a storm in a teacup than a bubbling froth in a cauldron.