Movie Magazine International

Roman Polanski and the Ninth Gate

USA - 1999

Movie Review By Moira Sullivan

Its been a while since weíve been graced with a Polanski film. Master of suspense with a wide repertoire of films and a disturbing checkered past, the Polanski name invokes the unexpected. Letís separate the work from the man for a moment to peer into his latest film The Ninth Gate .

By admission, Polanski does not want to serve us digested or even pre-digested food at the movies, a comment he made recently at the Stockholm International Film Festival. In his adaptation of Arturo Perez-Reverte bestseller Le Club Dumas, he is already out in left field running from his intention. There are many good films that come from novels. As a French fan put it, this is the first time the devil is portrayed positively on film. Certainly he wasnít in Rosemaryís Baby nor does sunshine usually lurk within Polanskiís sinister characters for that matter. Perhaps Perez-Reverte's book is just too heavy to bring alive in more ways than one. Elements of alchemy and Satanism are set in dark and mystical environments in NY, Paris, Portugal and Spain but are intriguing deceptions which as subjects promise more than they deliver.

What makes this film depart from the exquisite craftsmanship of Polanskiís previous dark portraits is the predictability of the plot. And by virtue of this, exit stage left Polanskiís trademark for the unexpected.

The protagonist and book dealer Dean Corso played by Johnny Depp is the truly the kind of man who would sell his soul to the devil. In our first encounter with him we seem him talk bereaved relatives into selling the treasures of their recently departed for next to nothing. We know right away he would rob his grandmother. With this calling card, Corso is given an assignment by Boris Balkan played by Frank Langella, a Machiavellian book dealer with an outstanding library of rare books comfortable kept in a air-pressurized locked vault in New York. Corso is to authenticate a book supposedly authored by Lucifer whom Balkan recently acquired from a client just before he hung himself. The wife of that client is none other than Lena Ohlin who plays Liana Tefler.

The plot conventionally divides in two directions where Corso is sent to track down other owners of this mystical book and to expedite Balkans wish to compare the work. Unfortunately, these books are in and out of possession by waxwork characters .

Lena Ohlin is one of them who returns full force to reacquire her husbandís book. The Swedish actress has been typecast as a devious temptress following similar roles in The Incredible Lightness of Being and Romeo is Bleeding Polanski tries to rib us with references to her habit of gun concealment in the thigh of her sheer stockings from the latter film. But its as funny as Fox Mulder making references to pop culture in the latest installments of the X-Files. This is one is one of several bookmarks we can make of Polanski giving in to the fast food film culture of today he vehemently criticizes. Ohlinís role as satanic priestess at a Sabbath Mass is embarrassing. Likewise Balkan apparently suffers from bad breath because Depp smells him breathing down his heels throughout the assignment. In the spirit of predictability we donít have to second guess this insight ever.

The Baroness, played by British actress Barbara Jefford, owner of one of the other editions has an annoying German accent and a menacing lesbian watchdog who guards her library. Aren't the days of devious lesbian characters over. Nevertheless subtle gags around this tired stereotype are used for comic relief.

Finally we come to appraise the romantic angle between Corso and a mysterious helper played by Polanskiís wife in real life Emmanuelle Seigner. After witnessing her magnetic levitation down a staircase her allegiance to the devil is anticipated but we have to endure the question if she is or isnt the devil's concubine until Depp finally realizes it.

Back to those lithographs, audiences seem to be undervalued for their savoir faire . If its true that the journey of this film in part echoes the original saga these lithographs tell which fit like a puzzle, why is this giftwrapped in such a pretty little box with a bow and opened before Christmas. Polanski can be credited with one superb accomplishment though: the flipping of pages of the rare books and closeups of the lithographs --a tactile delight for book lovers.

He must have thought he had a good story but unfortunately has succumbed to the market power of films in full force. The world premiere of The Ninth Gate or Le Neuvieme Port was in San Sebestian, Spain and at the same time in Paris on August 25th, home of Polanski and Seigner. T-shirts, canvas bags, notebooks and other tie-ins are in full plumage on the French net. Mr. Polanski has not delivered us a masterpiece with this film but there are moments when we see his artistry unencumbered by the riff-raff. And its just those moments that will draw us to the movie theaters to see his latest creation.

This is Moira Sullivan for Movie Magazine International Stockholm, Sweden November 1999

© 1999 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/99

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