The Ninth Gate (1999)

reviewed by
Mark R. Leeper


                            THE NINTH GATE
                    A film review by Mark R. Leeper
               Capsule: Roman Polanski cryptically brings the
          novel EL CLUB DUMAS by Arturo Perez-Reverte to the
          screen.  He adds to the story a supernatural
          element, but hardly enough to make this interesting
          as a horror film.  The film shows potential but
          little real value ever comes out of it.  Perhaps
          Polanski does not know what are his most horrifying
          images.  Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)

Take a Sherlock Holmes story and set it in the Middle Ages at a monastery and you have IN THE NAME OF THE ROSE. Tell the story that way, and the unfamiliar trimmings will have some interest and you can give new life to what might otherwise be a tired plot. Far too much of THE NINTH GATE is hard-boiled detective story in the Sam Spade tradition, but sprinkled with trimmings from the rare book trade. Supposedly the novel on which THE NINTH GATE is based has almost no supernatural element and Polanski emphasized the little that was there. But take the supernatural out of this film and you have warmed over Dashiell Hammett. Late in this long film the greatly amplified supernatural element becomes more important, but its contribution is of too little interest too late.

Johnny Depp plays antiquarian book dealer Dean Corso, a wheeler- dealer with few scruples. In marked contrast to the passion his customers have for books, Corso treats books like stocks, buying and selling them like pork belly futures. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella doing a Fritz Weaver impression) a well-known collector of books on witchcraft and demonology. Balkan has recently purchased or stolen a Necronomicon-like book, "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows." Whether the book was bought or stolen will not be determined since the previous owner, Andrew Telfer, committed suicide once the book was out of his hands. There are thought to be only three copies of this book: Balkan's, one in Portugal, and one in France. But Balkan knows that even that number is not correct. There is only one copy and the other two are frauds. Balkan hires Corso to compare his copy with the other two copies and determine which is the original.

Before leaving for Europe Corso pays a visit to Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), widow of Andrew. She claims that the book belonged to her and by rights it still does. Corso heads for Europe. He quickly discovers that there are people trying to kill him and get Balkan's copy of the book. He also has acquired a sort of mysterious guardian who protects him in time of danger. She is an attractive blond (Emmanuelle Seigner) with a mean kick-boxing style. Corso has no idea who she is or why she protects him.

Roman Polanski has taken a rather complex and mystical novel, increased the emphasis on the supernatural, and changed a number of things around. By dropping the entire Alexander Dumas subplot, for which the book was named, he has freed up characters to be redefined for his new plot. Some of Polanski's seem just to be testing the medium. He has a completely gratuitous special effect in that two twins on the screen together are played by a single actor. The conclusion of the film is markedly different from the book. The mysticism that suffuses the film seems completely artificial, a long way from Polanski's best work. Part of the problem is that he seems to have lost his way in understanding where true horror lies. Certainly there are Polanski films that are horrifying. But in ROSEMARY'S BABY the ceremonial Satanism only worked because it was the late 1960s and people were open to really weird ideas. It was the situation of Rosemary being entrapped where the film's punch can still be felt. In this film he builds to a horror that seems cliched and uninteresting, like a spook in a sheet. He breezes right past the films only scene of true horror. That was at the beginning of the film and involved a stroke victim.

Polanski filmed THE NINTH GATE entirely in Europe. He had to recreate New York City much as Kubrick had to in EYES WIDE SHUT, though presumably he did it more economically. For this and other reasons this film seems at least superficially a companion film to Kubrick's last film. However, Kubrick brought his film to a conclusion while Polanski ends his film just short of telling us what it all means. Even when you find out what is happening you do not know what is happening. After 132 minutes it seems there should be more we know. It is the difference between serving a feast or just tantalizing the audience with one. I rate THE NINTH GATE 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

                                        Mark R. Leeper
                                        mleeper@lucent.com
                                        Copyright 2000 Mark R. Leeper

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