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From the Vault #8: THE NINTH GATE (1999)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from August 25th, 2014…

The Ninth Gate is a strange one from Roman Polanski, a director who has of course dabbled in the occult landscape he again taps here, arguably to greater success.

Adapted from the Spanish novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Polanski’s film is quite an elegant, cultured malaise of a story that could almost define the term ‘slow burn’, if it even burns at all. To many undoubtedly it’s subject matter–an unscrupulous book dealer is hired to find a tome that may be able to raise the Devil–would be inherently boring and Polanski’s careful construction of Johnny Depp’s lead character’s journey snooze inducing, yet oddly enough there is just something about the way Polanski shoots this, something about the manner of his narrative and the mysterious, seductive, beguiling characters involved that keeps you entertained – not to mention a sly sense of absurdity lurking underneath which, despite it’s posturing, suggests the director knows how silly the whole endeavour is.

The result is a beguiling occult thriller.

Though admittedly, ‘thriller’ may be pushing it. The Ninth Gate doesn’t really fall into that category as long tracts of it simply involve Depp’s Dean Corso travelling around the US & primarily Europe talking to wealthy, influential book dealers who help him piece together a fairly basic puzzle about the titular 16th century book, supposedly written in congress with Lucifer himself, which it seems somebody is looking to unlock the secrets of.

It doesn’t sound particularly exciting but Polanski layers this with a creeping sense of unearthly dread, before leaping at you with bursts of violence as shadowy figures conspire to thwart Corso–bursts which oddly seem over the top, melodramatic, perhaps to contrast the steadier tone & remind us how ludicrous the piece is (one Parisian canal ambush where Emmanuelle Seigner’s mysterious Girl sweeps in to save Corso is hilariously daft, though perhaps intentionally). It’s never entirely clear if that’s consciously what Polanski is doing, but the signs suggest as much; he’s not necessarily trying to scare here, and nothing in The Ninth Gate could be classed as ‘horror’ in the traditional sense, despite a few grisly murders & a nicely fiery climactic beat.

Indeed, especially with another sumptuous score from the late Wojciech Kilar, it recalls at times the seductive enigma of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of a careful pull by forces unknown into a deepening mystery. That’s the best word for the film – mystery. The book itself is a puzzle & that’s how Polanski plays it, surrounding Depp with enigmatic figures such as Lena Olin’s rich seductress or the ever great Frank Langella as the book magnate who sets Corso on his journey; and Depp himself underplays (despite the fact Polanski apparently wanted a performance with more spark), recalling shades of film noir detective with his callous nature & dogged determination. You won’t necessarily care about Depp’s character but you’ll remain intrigued as to where he ends up.

A definite curio though, on the whole, but one that has always appealed to me. The Ninth Gate isn’t Roman Polanski at his best, of course, but it does at times get unfairly swept aside when there’s more skill, class, wit and underlying beats of intriguing enigma to his film than people often give it credit for. Johnny Depp is a solid on screen presence, in the days before he sold out & started mugging like a pirate, and he’s surrounded by a cultured cast of strong supporting players who do what they can with a script that, admittedly, feels a touch parsed down but that adds to the film’s seductive sense of mystery.

If you go in not expecting thrills or chills but an old-fashioned, carefully constructed puzzle, you may well find this surprisingly beguiling.

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