The Ninth Gate

Bookish types (no pun intended) may get a charge out of the early scenes in The Ninth Gate, the lumbering new thriller directed by Roman Polanski. The camera lingers over centuries-old volumes, their leatherbound bodies shining with perfection, their pages turning with a soft, soothing ruffle. Polanski, who understands obsession better than just about any living director aside from Martin Scorsese, makes us feel the passion of collectors who not only love but fetishize rare old books. The movie begins with Polanski’s usual mood of voluptuous menace, promising an elegant headgame for people who still read; the mood remains — Polanski’s craft is impeccable — but the story lets him down.

One collector in particular, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), has made it his life’s work to collect first editions of all books having to do with Satan; collectors of anything will have no trouble relating to his fixation on The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, the final volume he has acquired to complete his collection. Now he wants book expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) to find the other two existing copies of the book, ostensibly to authenticate them. Corso, played by Depp as a cynical brooder with slippery morals, agrees to the quest in exchange for a fat paycheck. The movie itself soon feels as if Polanski had done the same thing.

Corso hops from country to country, which always feels like the same European wherever, in search of the volumes, whose owners all seem destined for undignified deaths. One’s anticipatory mood may sour when one realizes that The Ninth Gate is essentially just a ponderous supernatural whodunit, without the freaky twists of an Angel Heart or a Sixth Sense. Polanski seems caught between the commercial (people get knocked off right on cue) and the uncommercial (it’s about books, for God’s sake), between the art house and the multiplex, between the sublime and the ridiculous. In this case, the ridiculous wins out more often than not.

Once Corso is on the road, away from his usual practice, the movie loses a lot of its unique strangeness. The idea of a collector who only buys books about Satan is intriguing; I was interested in the few glimpses we get of Corso’s wheeling and dealing, when he snags a four-volume Don Quixote for a relative pittance and brings them back to a book-dealer associate (James Russo, underused here). When Polanski abandons this backdrop for the conventional thriller stuff, it’s a bummer. And the presence of Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner as the mysterious, ass-kicking woman who joins Corso (she’s like Lara Croft thrown into the middle of Angel Heart) just makes the movie feel like a creepier version of Polanski’s Frantic (also starring Seigner). She seems to have the ability to levitate, and she has a fairly embarrassing topless scene in front of a fiery apocalypse. Yes, Roman, we’ve already seen why you married her. We didn’t need further proof.

One other interesting aspect of The Ninth Gate is the three volumes themselves, which vary slightly; the variations are a key to something, which turns out to be standard supernatural mumbo-jumbo. The ending seems like about three climaxes leading up to a big anticlimax. It’s one thing to leave a story unresolved for purposes of artistic ambiguity, but The Ninth Gate has all the earmarks of a director who has no idea how to end his movie (a problem he usually hasn’t had before). I won’t reveal anything — though if you missed it opening weekend, what’s the likelihood you’re ever going to see it anyway? — but I expected the Boris Balkan character to have more prominence, more power, than he does.

The movie could have used a whole lot more of Frank Langella, who is aging to resemble fellow Dracula Christopher Lee and is rapidly becoming just as lovably hammy. A movie about Boris Balkan, a lonely man whose extensive collection of Satanic literature keeps him warm at night, would have been a good character study for Polanski to tackle. But this movie is about a colorless guy (Depp plays him professionally but indifferently) who wanders around ritzy private libraries and keeps finding dead people. A seedy loner pursuing a mystery while up against corrupt rich people and Satan: sounds like a good story for the director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Too bad there’s little of that director in evidence here.

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