Just a quick personal note before we get started today. I’m feeling a bit under the weather tonight and I really just want to go to bed, so I might be being a bit overly dismissive of the movie here. Also, there’s a strawberry twice the size of my thumb sitting on the table in front of me. It’s very distracting.
Johnny, Tim Burton misses you.
Unscrupulous rare book dealer Dean Corso is hired by the mysterious millionaire Boris Balkan to confirm that his newly-acquired copy of the seventeenth-century book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows – reputed to be able to summon Lucifer – is the genuine article. Corso’s investigation takes him from New York to Spain, Portugal and finally rural France where he will learn the truth about the book, and his own place in the mystery. Weird sex ensues.
With The Ninth Gate, director Roman Polanski returns to the supernatural world he last visited with Rosemary’s Baby, but with rather less success. Based on the novel The Club Dumas by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Riverte, the film stars Johnny Depp as Corso and Frank Langella as Balkan, with Lena Olin as the book’s previous owner Liana Telfer and Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner as The Girl, an unnamed woman who always seems to be there to help Corso when he gets in trouble.
One of the biggest problems is in the tone of the film. It seems that Polanski couldn’t decide what type of flick he wanted to make. The first and second acts switch back and forth seemingly at random between a sort of neo-noir detective story and a black comedy, while the third act just goes full-bore Hammer gothic horror. If he had picked any one of those and stuck with it, the movie probably would have been considerably better but you feel constantly on the back foot every time there’s a shift. Also the pacing is a bit disjointed, but that could easily be another symptom of the same disease; a lot of the advances in the story come from big info-dumps of exposition separated by long scenes of almost no dialogue as we watch Corso on his travels.
Appropriately for a (sometimes) neo-noir film, all the characters are varying shades of dickhead. Nobody is particularly likeable, except for Corso’s pal Bernie who gets unceremoniously bumped off after one scene. The Girl is probably the most uncomplicated presence – her sole mission appears to be keeping an eye on Corso – but of course even she turns out to have an agenda. What that agenda is remains disappointingly vague right to the end though. It’s that general sense of vagueness that really let me down the most about The Ninth Gate. Some of the characters are given actual goals (that guy wants to open Hell and summon Lucifer himself; this woman wants to keep her annual orgies going at all costs) but Corso just appears to be arbitrarily obsessed with the book whenever a particular plot point requires it, and just doing his job the rest of the time. And speaking of doing his job, would a rare books expert often flip through a unique folio with a lit cigarette hanging in the corner of his mouth? Only in the movies, I suppose.
I think I might watch this again just to hear what Polanski has to say on his commentary but other than that I’m glad this DVD was just a loaner.
There was one little touch that I really liked, but the gag only works in hindsight: in a movie based around centuries-old mystical texts, Lucifer’s own reading material amounts to How to Win Friends and Influence People. Now that’s funny.