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Roman Polanski's 1999 The Ninth Gate is superior horror hybrid that just misses greatness. Almost everything clicks in a strange thriller that presents unpredictable surprises almost all the way through. It has a basic detective story plot, except that Polanski's seeker of information is a rare book expert well acquainted with shady deals. The story takes us on a complicated quest to exotic locales. And the star Johnny Depp guarantees a fair shot at mass popularity.
Dean Corso (Depp) is a slick New York book appraiser fond of fleecing his customers; we see him overestimating the value of a collection, and then buying a rare Cervantes edition for a song. The vastly wealthy occultist Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to acquire various copies of a rare book said to be a tool for summoning the Devil. Corso is almost immediately caught up in intrigues with Liana Telfer, the widow of the owner of one copy (Lena Olin), a pair of Spanish bookbinders (both played by Jose Lopez Rodero, a noted 2nd unit director) and other European book collectors. Corso is alarmed to discover that some of the collectors have taken their superstitions to extremes, especially after his bookseller Bernie (James Russo) is murdered in his own shop. But Balkan rebuffs Corso's request to drop the case. Most disturbing of all is a Girl (Emmanuele Seigner) that seems to be following Corso wherever he goes -- and protects him when things get dangerous.
The Ninth Gate begins with several scenes involving the rare book trade, an attractive world where specialized knowledge is everything. Corso keeps a low profile as he bookworms his way from one collection to another, cleverly raking off big profits. But even he is intimidated by Boris Balkan's collection of Devil books, locked in a glass vault in his high-rise headquarters. Corso is a more down-to-earth Indiana Jones, faulted by his willingness to take on crooked jobs for a big payday. He's Philip Marlowe, librarian extraordinaire.
The story soon spins off into a macabre thriller with connections to horror movies as diverse as Curse of the Demon, The Seventh Victim and Lisa and the Devil. Boris Balkan is a closet necromancer with grand ambitions to acquire unheard-of supernatural powers. He's convinced that the legend is true, that the book was co-written by The Devil and contains "nine gates" to power. The supremely sinister Liana Telfer may be a leader of a strange group of wealthy, decadent devil worshippers; instead of the devout Satanists of Rosemary's Baby or the Greenwich Village coffee-klatch in The Seventh Victim, Telfer's followers convene as a sort of naughty sex club.
The Lisa and the Devil connection is made explicit in Corso's trip to an ancient Spanish city, with its little shop sequestered in a narrow alley. Starting with subtle differences discovered in illustrations in copies of the demonic book, Corso finds himself confronted by a conspiracy that carries hints of the uncanny. His best friend is found hung upside down, as in a familiar Tarot illustration. Other contacts turn up dead, including Liana Telfer's husband, who committed suicide immediately after selling his copy of the book to Balkan.
As a thriller The Ninth Gate must walk a tightrope between the supernatural and a straight paranoid thriller -- something akin to Mr. Arkadin. And this is where the film finally gives out. Corso has an amusingly cynical sexual encounter with Liana Telfer, who may or may not be behind various hit men engaged to kill him and/or retrieve the book. The first sign of the fantastic at work comes through Emmanuele Seigner's "The Girl", a vagabond who shows up at a Manhattan lecture, on a French train and just happens to be present to rescue Corso from various attacks. On the Seine riverbank, Seigner reveals herself as some kind of spirit person, either an angel or a demon. She "flies" through the air to defeat a thug attacker. 1
The story forces Polanski to choose between ambiguity and embracing the supernatural, leading to finale that isn't entirely satisfactory. It's exciting, logical and mysterious, but fairly familiar. After so many superb, original twists, it can't help but seem formulaic, like something that might happen in a horror picture by a less accomplished filmmaker. I suppose that's part of the curse of being a world-class filmmaker -- brilliance becomes the expected norm.
As might be expected The Ninth Gate is put together with consummate skill; Polanski's direction is elegant but not ostentatious, and he works wonderful variations on generic "detective" scenes when Corso investigates strange buildings and encounters cagey characters that don't reveal their true purposes. Several of the occultist book collectors (as opposed to the out-and-out Satanists) are crippled or infirm, a thread that also leads back to The Seventh Victim. Its melancholy coven is seemingly composed of bitter intellectuals disappointed by life. Polanski concocts a convincing New York in Paris sound stages (guess why) and demonstrates an insider's knowledge of Spanish terraces, run-down Portuguese villas and imposing Viennese palaces. When The Girl momentarily appears to fly, it's a weird, surreal moment, not an exercise in Hong Kong wire work.
Johnny Depp underplays Dean Corso until things go really wild, at which point he does his best to make the character credible. After Corso tries to back out of the job at an early stage, his persistence through subsequent murder attempts and demonstrations of black magic can only be tacked up to the needs of narrative. Again, this seems like a slight only because the best Polanski films have overcome much greater genre obstacles. Emmanuele Seigner and Frank Langella fill out their roles without bowling us over, as do the supporting players in pictures like Rosemary's Baby or The Fearless Vampire Killers. Jose Lopez Rodero and Eurohorror name Jack Taylor are interesting in smaller parts. Only Lena Olin is truly memorable as the black-suited Park Avenue vixen, a dangerous (and demonic) dame more impressive than anything Philip Marlowe ever had to deal with.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray of The Ninth Gate is a stunningly sharp and colorful rendering of Polanski's engaging occult thriller. It far exceeds the visual impact of the older DVD release, as each location takes on its own "atmospheric personality" as created by the director, production designer Dean Tavoularis and cameraman Darius Khondji. As with most of Polanski's films the technical aspect is superb, and the HD picture and sound really show the difference.
The disc ports over the extras from the previous standard release, including an EPK featurette and a gallery of the nine demonic plates. By now, thousands of viewers have been able to see the entire set of devilish illustrations, but we haven't heard of even one viewer being admitted through the gates of all-consuming satanic power. I'm beginning to believe that the writers just made this story up!
The best extra is Polanski's relaxed commentary, in which he talks about the film and the casting and many of his directorial and story choices, including the ending. 2 He also voices interesting opinions on subjects like storyboarding, marketing and special effects: the film is filled with dozens of undetectable effects shots. The movie was edited on an Avid non-linear film composer, which leads to a terrific discussion of the process. Polanski says that the Avid is faster but it also enables the director to tinker with cuts and to review older versions of scenes ad infinitum, which can be counter-productive. The ability to "keep making it better" can become a limiting illusion: Making it better can be the enemy of making it good".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ninth Gate Blu-ray rates:
1. Emmanuele Seigner is of course Roman Polanski's wife, the star of his earlier Frantic, a great picture given short shrift by critics. Since Seigner's French adventuress in Frenzy died on the banks of the Seine, it's almost as if her character here is that woman's reincarnation ... cinematically, that is.
2. The creepiest thing about the ending will only be apparent to knowledgeable Polanski fans -- it involves a large wardrobe-like cabinet being detached from the wall of a Spanish printing shop. Polanski has a thing for wardrobe cabinets, which figure as crucial pieces of disturbing décor in a number of his pictures.
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