Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 61 (B-)
That I enjoyed The Ninth Gate speaks to Roman Polanski’s talent as a filmmaker. Sure, the plot is utterly moronic through-and-through, makes less sense and grows increasingly ridiculous as it goes along, and ends up going absolutely nowhere by the end. With just about any other director, The Ninth Gate would be laughable. With Roman Polanski doing basically Chinatown meets Rosemary’s Baby, it’s perversely entertaining. This thing is fucking stupid, but I like it.
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a rare-book dealer working in New York. Dean’s wealthy book collector acquaintance, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), acquires a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book about summoning the devil. Balkan wants Dean to make sure his copy is the original by comparing it to the only other two known copies. Corso travels throughout Europe to determine the truth, but he’s followed by a shadowy organization of Satan-worshippers led by Liana Tefler (Lena Olin) and by a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who has a few secrets of her own.
Polanski sets Dean Corso as a modern Jake Gittes and Boris Balkan as a Noah Cross/Roman Castevet, and it largely works thanks to the performances of Depp and Langella. Depp hits the right note of skepticism and devil-may-care attitude for the role (isn’t it nice seeing him back when he gave actual performances?), while Langella is wonderfully sinister as Balkan. Less assured: Seigner, who Polanski keeps throwing into his movies, convinced that one day she’ll click. She’s as blank as ever.
She’s not too much of a hindrance, though, with Polanski working his magic. He’s deftly aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shoots the film like he’s making Seven again, and composer Wojciech Kilar, whose moody, creepy, often playful work here rivals his more famous score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. There’s a simple creepiness and classicism to the opening suicide of Olin’s husband, which Polanski and Khondji shoot with a mixture of doom and matter-of-factness that’s deeply unnerving. Polanski could do this kind of slow-burning horror in his sleep, but while he and Depp clearly don’t take the plot of the film too seriously (there’s an arch tone to the whole thing), they still manage to create a mood of ever-present dread that carries the film past its goofy plot.
Which, come on, the plot is ridiculous. Polanski and his co-screenwriters John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizu certainly try to turn this into another Chinatown/Rosemary’s Baby story of power, corruption, death and manipulation, but The Ninth Gate’s plot about a book literally written by the devil strains credibility throughout. It doesn’t matter too much in the buildup, in which Depp mostly deals with shady individuals and organizations rather than the supernatural, but the film isn’t as grounded as Rosemary’s Baby, and it finally leads to a lame finale where Langella’s all-powerful villain starts acting like an idiot. The big reveal involving Seigner (she’s a demon, basically) is even more ridiculous, not a final shot that’s the definition of ending with a whimper rather than a bang. It was too late for me to start hating the movie, but by the end The Ninth Gate stops being trashily enjoyable and just turns into trash.