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The Ninth Gate

Review by Paula Nechak
Posted 10 March 2000

Directed by Roman Polanski 

Starring Johnny Depp, 
Frank Langella, Lena Olin, 
Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford,
  Jack Taylor, José López Rodero, 
James Russo, Tony Amoni, 
Willy Holt, Maria Ducceshi, 
and Jacques Collard 

Written by John Brownjohn 
and Roman Polanski 

What hell hath Roman Polanski wrought with this laughably silly film version (that in its second half reminds of Eyes Wide Shut) of the novel El Club Dumas by Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte? It's an occult thriller without thrills and while it purportedly goes for dark humor and an equally dark style, most of its laughs are unintentional. The Ninth Gate stars Johnny Depp as Dean Corso, a mercenary piranha of old, rare books who will say or do anything in order to make a lucrative deal with book collection heirs who are bereft after a family death. Into his life comes billionaire publisher and procurer-at-any-cost of a library dedicated to Satan, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella). Balkan is the proud owner of the obscure The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a manual reportedly written in collaboration with Lucifer himself. Balkan hires Corso, who should known better than to take the gig once he notices Balkan's book vault passcode is "666," to track down the only two other existing copies - one in Portugal and one in France - and compare his volume to those in order to discern authenticity. The job descends Corso into a different hell - one of death, greed, obsession and satanic ritual - and unites him with two women who hold the key to the mystery of the Ninth Gate.

While Depp is an accomplished actor and can usually make much of little, he's out of his element here and miscast as a snake-hearted antiquarian book dealer. He's even physically wrong for the role. Polanski drenches the film with gothic atmosphere and brooding decay to infer the demonic and dreaded but while his intentions are noble, the script, written by Polanski, Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn, has outwitted and eluded him. After a terrific first half, the film slides into reminiscences of Polanski's recent, negligible films, Frantic and Bitter Moon, both of which feature wife Emanuelle Seigner as a mysterious free spirit. Seigner is the iffy figure in The Ninth Gate as well and while she's a benign presence here, pitted against the calculations of a sorely wasted Lena Olin, who plays a rich widow Satan-worshipper, no one ever said she could act. The Ninth Gate in its second half, makes me miss the real Polanski - the guy who gave us Repulsion, Chinatown, Macbeth, The Tenant, and Rosemary's Baby, the latter which chillingly explored the nature of unforseen evil, wrapped in a shroud of family values and babies, handsome husbands and loopy older neighbors and, in the end, gave us Satan with a far more demonic and seductive sense of humor than this awful, bad joke of a film.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview with Roman Polanski.

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