RETRO REVIEW: The Ninth Gate (1999)

Theatrical Release Poster – Artisan Entertainment

The following is a retro review of The Ninth Gate (the review includes some story spoilers) — Directed by Roman Polanski.

Based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas, Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate tells the story of an unscrupulous book dealer, Dean Corso (played by Johnny Depp), and his attempt to authenticate a mysterious book for a wealthy collector, Boris Balkan (played by Frank Langella). To properly authenticate the book, Corso has to bring it with him to Europe to compare it with the other two known editions of the book, but this isn’t just any book. Balkan’s book can supposedly summon the Devil, and, as Dean Corso soon finds out, crazed individuals are willing to go to great lengths to acquire it.

The Ninth Gate is a rather slow, campy, and repetitive film, but, admittedly, the story at the heart of the film is very intriguing. I think it is the kind of film that is more fun to think about than to watch. I think it is tonally uneven, and the fight scenes are downright ridiculous. The choreographed fights are awkward, and the wirework is absurd (a character is literally floating around for two or three scenes, but the characters don’t really bring it up as much as they really ought to). Ultimately, while the setup is intriguing, I don’t think the payoff is worth the effort of going through the 133-minute runtime. I will say, though, that I do think this could’ve been really good. The Ninth Gate had potential, but, especially towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the three screenwriters (including Polanski), or just director Roman Polanski, struggled to make the occult scenes work. There is a sometimes awkward cult sequence that pales in comparison with Stanley Kubrick’s cult sequence in Eyes Wide Shut, which was released in the same year, and the final fifteen-to-twenty minutes are, frankly, underwhelming.

What we have here is a frustratingly ambiguous ending backed up by an, again, almost mechanically repetitive structure. This is a spoiler, so feel free to avert your eyes, but, for example, every time Depp’s character finds another copy of the book, the same thing inevitably ends up happening. First, he talks to Langella’s character about the copy that he has studied, then he returns for the other copy of the book, and, inevitably, that ‘other copy’ has, or has had, a chance encounter with fiery flames. Oh, and lest we forget, at some point, a suspicious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner’s unnamed character) defends and protects Dean Corso, Depp’s character, from harm in increasingly ridiculous ways. Generally, her nefarious intentions are telegraphed so obviously that you are almost always a step ahead of the film.

For the most part, I actually thought most of the central performances worked. Frank Langella and Lena Olin take their time to chew up the scenery in what little time they have on-screen, whereas Johnny Depp is much more subdued as Dean Corso. Perhaps Depp’s performance clashes with the film’s campier scenes, but Depp’s approach actually really worked for me. While I thought Langella, Olin, and Depp all made somewhat positive impressions (though for different reasons), I was less pleased with Seigner’s performance.

Ultimately, I think Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate is fairly engrossing and sometimes appropriately atmospheric in spite of the languid pace, but, in pivotal moments, the campy execution lets the film down. I tend to really appreciate mystery thrillers, but I just don’t think Polanski’s film sticks the landing here.

5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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