Those most conspicuous qualities of Polanski's unfairly maligned pan-European adventure invites comparison to his classic Rosemary's Baby. Adapted from novels concerning obsession with satanic ritual and invocation, both films challenge the pertinence of the horror rubric. Although the mephistophelian transgressions of Rosemary's Baby are couched in a topic of maternity, The Ninth Gate ventures a cryptic, circuitous route through a preoccupation more abstruse than it ought be: bibliophilia.
Scarcely faithful to its source material (Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas), The Ninth Gate's narrative pertains ultimately to the pursuit of a personal connection with the famed Dark Prince, yet its myriad diversions invariably communicate the perspectives of dedicated collectors and literary cognoscenti immoderately fascinated with codices. Johnny Depp's cunning Dean Corso is certainly as unethical a trader of printed material as one might dread to encounter, but his admiration for those historical and technical aspects of volumes rare and exquisite is rooted in an affection for these tomes that intimates an enthusiast's purity of captivation.
Boris Balkan (played with imperial elocution by Frank Langella) is an affluent publisher, lecturer and collector of literature who's cultivated an unparalleled interest in Luciferian writings. He commissions Corso to investigate two alternate copies of a seventeenth-century satanic text (loosely based on early Renaissance allegory Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) that he's obtained, so to authenticate it by dint of collocational examination. Evidently, this uncommonly rare volume is intended to conjure Beelzebub, and hasn't yielded its owner's desired results. Balkan surmises that his copy may be a postiche, and that one or both of two others in prestigious collections privately held in Portugal and France is the genuine article.
Polanski devotees anticipating the Polish filmmaker's earmark paranoia may be disappointed to find it here attenuated, though by no means absent. Alternately amusing and engrossing, The Ninth Gate's as cleverly plotted and sedulously detailed as exciting, containing a modicum of its director's usual prefigurations and indulgent casting. As always, the cinema veteran exploits his gifted principal histrions to their optimal potential; in the lead, Depp's cool reserve as library sleuth is contrasted with that of a malefic, seemingly omnipresent Langella and graceful Emmanuelle Seigner as Corso's mysterious, uninvited, apparently preternatural companion. Lena Olin's snarling turn in the role of a wealthy, libidinous, underhanded widower is of especial distinction, as is erstwhile Stratford/Old Vic fixture Barbara Jefford as a haughty, crippled Teutonic baroness whose enviable literary collection yields a few startling revelations.
Visually, it's surely one of Polanski's most opulent movies. Darius Khondji's lush, subtly lit cinematography accommodates leisurely, almost casual camera direction comprised largely of deliberate zooms and pans. Polanski retains viewer attentiveness to these proceedings without resorting to gimmickry. Composed by his compatriot Wojciech Kilar, the score boasts elegant variations on an ominous, memorable theme, and a gorgeous vocal sung by soprano Sumi Jo in its closing reprise. Francisco Sole's woodcut engravings - fabricated to furnish Pérez-Reverte's novel with illustrations - impart a Renaissance verisimilitude to the infernal coveted volumes.
Invariably panned upon release by critics who expected terror, shocks and suspense, a compelling protagonist and explication withheld by the implicit epiphany of its denouement while stupidly misinterpreting Polanski's distinctive black humor, The Ninth Gate does deliver an effective few jolts, but any hope that Americans might embrace a picture proffering mere intimations of erudition were dashed by its apathetic stateside reception. Polanski's professional deportment evinces an indifference to genre conventions...alas, in this instance, that nonchalance didn't translate to box office success.
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