Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
The Ninth Gate seems to be remembered more fondly than it deserves. This isn’t to say that critics reviewed it positively when it came out. It was panned in that reverentially reserved way that critics save for reviews of shoddy new efforts by big dogs, but I’ve felt a cult slowly growing around it since its release. Up until I actually had to revisit it for this article, I counted myself a member to the extent that, when the film came up in conversation, I’d mention remembering enjoying it back in ’99. Now I have to remind myself that I was 13 at the time and that this movie was basically, at best, designed for 13-year-olds.
There’s compelling elements going for it: a neo-noirish investigative structure, various plot elements involving a medieval text suspected to be coauthored by Lucifer, sinister conspiracies involving rich people with tattoos of archaic symbols dressing in robes to raise the devil and a number of globe-trotting locations for basking in its pulpy, moody vibe, but the whole thing just doesn’t add up. It winds up feeling like less of a movie and more like a mid-’90s computer adventure game – it might have just been dismissed as a mediocre Gabriel Knight knock-off in another time.
Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, an unscrupulous book mercenary who rips off people who don’t know better while buying their dead relatives’ collections and sells them off at a markup to collectors who do. He’s hired by publishing magnate and big-time Satanist, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), to authenticate the aforementioned collaborative work with Lucifer, and he’s immediately off to consult with other devil experts in Europe.
All this is great, we’ve got an insular world, which provides Polanski the boundaries he needs for creating his particular type of claustrophobic tension, we’ve got various occult symbology, which is always a sign of a good time, but the issue is that the plot itself evolves in the least elegant way imaginable, and the various interesting, mysterious elements of the film are instead broadcast at such a high volume that there’s no satisfaction to be gained from that sensation of being embroiled in something vast and beyond you. The feeling never comes up in the film.
We dwell on Balkan typing 666 as his password into one door, then an elevator, in his library complex. Is this a joke, or meant to be an insidious detail, or what? It’s never really clear, but the obviousness of the visual cue and the implied menace creates the sensation that we are viewing the film from the POV of a scandalized child. You can have so much fun with this stuff if you commit to it, but Polanski seems unsure as to whether or not he wants this film to be campy or sincere, and instead it is neither, which is a shame, because both of those polarities still require some sort of a fixed perspective on the part of the filmmaker. In an attempt to prove he was too smart for his own project, Polanski winds up ruining it instead. Which parts are tongue in cheek, after all? Is the cult-symbol ass tattoo we glimpse on one of Corso’s lovers (a symbol we never see again) meant to be? Can a book investigator tell the age of a medieval manuscript by listening to the pages flipping past his ear?
The performances are bad across the board, the only real satisfaction to be gained from any of them is the sensation of kids playacting at something bigger than themselves, and which they do not fully understand. The plot itself evolves like a shaggy dog joke, at one point requiring Corso to basically go from one “level” to another to meet up with other owners of the same book, have a brief conversation with them and then face a small trial in order to be able to compare their editions against his own and authenticate. He does this three times, like the blonde daughter, the brunette and the redhead, in order for us to, at the end, learn that they’re ALL authentic!
This is a movie that uses the symbol of a book to barricade itself behind the attached sense of heightened perspective that comes with them, which is a form of philistinism by way of being an empty grab for highbrow cred. This is a movie all about books, which is overwhelmed by endless shelves of them and has us constantly peering into the dark gaps between them for some hidden truth, yet which chooses to forgo texts altogether, instead dwelling solely on illustrations, the whole effort of figuring out whether, oh yeah, Satan had a hand in writing the book, is searching for his initials in the corner of its pictures. It’s boring, not for the pacing that some critics cite as a slight against it, but because it is literally just super uninteresting. There is the customary Polanskian elegance of using the camera to limit our vision, the film is nicely shot and lush, but it is a dog.
by Andrei Alupului