The Ninth Gate (1999)

D: Roman Polanski
S: Johnny Depp, Emmanuelle Seigner

Meticulously crafted but poorly scripted yarn from Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water) following antiquarian book dealer Johnny Depp (Sleepy Hollow) in search of diabolic texts (allegedly co-written by Satan himself) on behalf of obsessive collector Frank Langella (Lolita). His journey takes him to various points in Europe, during which he is shadowed by mysterious beauty Emmanuelle Seigner (Bitter Moon) and pursued by ruthless and manipulative Lena Olin (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), who will literally kill to get her hands on the books. The prospect of a tale of obsession, paranoia, and the supernatural from the director of Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby is admittedly mouth watering, and visually at least, it has all the richness and style which fans have come to expect. Darius Khondji's ravishing cinematography showcases marvellous sets and locations, Wojciech Kilar's score is suitably brooding (as was his score for Bram Stoker's Dracula), and the film has an enveloping baroque feel throughout. Johnny Depp is good in the central role. Clad in dark clothing and supporting a satanic goatee and glasses, he registers a strong visual presence even against such lush backdrops, with not a small amount of sly parody in his characterisation. The performances on the whole are generally good. Each of the cast appears to have the requisite amount of hidden motivation and makes a suitable impression. Barbara Jefford does a nice turn as a wheelchair-bound collector whose demise is among the film's most stylish moments. José López Rodero is most amusing as twin book dealers and restorers. It is not an uninteresting premise either, with great potential to match the literary and cinematic puzzles upon which the narrative is based. As Depp progresses with his investigation, he becomes increasingly intrigued by the mystery of the books himself, until, in true Polanski fashion, turnabout occurs.

Unfortunately the script, from the novel Le Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez Reverte, co-written by Polanski, John Brownjohn, and Enrique Urbizu, is weak. Each step Depp takes is too schematic, a plodding pursuit of too obvious a goal which threatens to become, like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, merely a series of violent set pieces. Well mounted as the individual scenes are, they add up to less of a labyrinth than might have been hoped for. Despite the apparent focus on the power of the word and the mysteries of the written text, the enigma of the nine gates seems to boil down to a set of illustrations from the books, which undercuts the constant presence (and evident fetishisation) of the literary. From Langella's sterile high-rise, high security library (remember, the pass code is '666'!) to the decaying mansion inhabited by fallen aristocrat Jack Taylor, the world of book collecting is shown to be a sort of conduit for darker manias and desires, yet there is little enough tangible feeling of excitement in Depp's character as he gets closer to the heart of it. The film ends with a series of uninvolving climaxes and the story doesn't so much arrive at a conclusion as simply stop in its tracks. Rather than resolving the threads of mystery, horror, and investigation which have run throughout, Polanski hurriedly wraps things up just as they seem about to begin (admittedly, a myriad of running times exist, version reviewed is the 127 minute US distribution print). This leaves the viewer dissatisfied rather than intrigued, and though the presence of an undercurrent of satire and black comedy becomes clear and one may therefore regard the teasing finale as a final poke in the ribs, it is difficult to smile. Only the sequence where a would-be satanist conclave is rudely interrupted by a dose of reality is actually funny, the rest hopes for dark chuckles it can't quite raise.

It is still worth a look. Even off-form, Polanski can provide fascinating moments of cinematic craft in which art seems to lurk just beneath the surface. There are lovely scenes in this film, and the overall tone and texture is right on target. It is a pity that it has not come together effectively on this occasion, but there is plenty to admire and enjoy if you're in the right frame of mind. Unfortunately, it won't scare you, or make you laugh, when ideally it should have done both. It has been thirty years since this director pulled of that kind of delicate balancing act in Rosemary's Baby and Fearless Vampire Killers, and with that kind of pedigree in its lineage, this film is an inevitable disappointment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.