I liked Pirates of The Caribbean- when I finally saw it. Although Johnny Depp was an eighties and nineties teen idol through vehicles like 21 Jump Street and Cry Baby, I am bemused to see his face on book bags, toys, even waffles in Captain Jack fame. Despite his recent family friendly pictures, Depp’s body of work lends itself to the macabre and dark with films like Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride and mature features such as Blow and From Hell. In 1999, the talented Mr. Depp starred in The Ninth Gate. Not for Pirate fans, indeed.
Oscar winning director Roman Polanski directs Depp as Nick Corso-a rare book dealer whose reputation precedes him. Corso is summoned by Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) to inspect his collection of rare books on the devil-in particular the Nine Gates of The Kingdom of Shadows. Only Three exist, and Balkin fears two are forgeries. He commissions Corso to go to Europe and compare the books-finances are no object.
During his investigation, Corso questions the “dishy” Widow Telfer (Lena Olin). Her rich old husband sold her Nine Gates to Balkan one day before he killed himself, and Telfer even takes Corso to bed in her quest to reclaim the book. Corso’s life is threatened repeatedly, and after Corso meets with the other two owners of the Nine Gates, death follows. A mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) helps Corso and they solve the puzzles within the books’ engravings. When all nine of the original engravings-supposedly drawn by Lucifer- are united, the devil himself will appear.
The film opens brilliantly with the suicide of Mr. Telfer. It’s an odd way to start a film-to begin with death- but Polanski’s opener works. The opening credits and score by Wojciech Kilar (The Pianist, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) are equally haunting, and everything in the film truly progresses from this moment. Depp’s first scene as Corso is also delightful. He scams a family out of a rare book set, and thus Polanski and Depp instantly establish the lack of Corso’s innocence. Corso starts out as greedy, selfish, ambitious, but he soon becomes obsessed with the Nine Gates.
Depp’s mannerisms and dress also swiftly convey his duality and the duel nature of evil itself. He knows all the top European hotels, dresses fine, speaks French-there’s no doubt of Corso’s intelligence. He is however devious, an underbelly scam artist-when Corso’s only friend dies, Nick takes the hidden Nine Gates and leaves his friend strung up and dead. The three owners of the Nine Gates are incredibly wealthy and fortunate, and Polanski reiterates the idea that the devil is luxorius, tempting, enticing and you must sell your soul to obtain such powers. As Nick comes closer to the truth about the Nine Gates, Depp’s appearance changes. He gets dirty, wet, beat up. He wears broken glasses. His refined exterior is stripped away, and Corso’s true nature is revealed.
Some parts of The Ninth Gate are very heavy and dark. Depp’s quirky sarcasm, however, keeps the feel light. The film is set mostly in Europe, giving it that devilish, upscale feel. The use of foreign language is accurate-it’s nice to see a director that acknowledges not everyone everywhere speaks English. The locales are beautifully showcased, and this use of real locations reinforces the spooky possibilities of the film. The books and buildings are old, very old, ancient, ancient as evil.
For a relatively quiet foreign production, The Ninth Gate also boasts several well known supporting names. Frank Langella and Lena Olin are perfect as the rich, classy, aging gracefully socialites worshipping the devil. Each thinks his or her interpretation of the Nine Gates will summon the devil-some of the craziness they go to for their beliefs is a bit humorous, but Polanski and the old school actors expertly convey a level of real life creepiness. Both Balkin and Telfer point fingers at each other’s money and power, and the audience is left with the creepy notion that we must all play with fire, candles, orgies, and pentagrams to achieve success.
Barbara Jefford as the third Gates owner Barroness Kessler is the lone voice of relative reason. She warns Corso the devil isn’t child’s play, and she left the secret society surrounding the Nine Gates after the club degraded to sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Unfortunately, the Baroness-like the previous respectable owners of the Nine Gates before her-meets a bitter end.
Although the intelligence of the film is in its puzzles and performances, the action leaves something to be desired. The deaths are unique and impressive, but Depp’s not an action star-at least not here. This supports the idea that Corso is a bit of a slimeball, but it makes a few stunts seem somewhat silly. It’s ironic that Corso is the guy we’re rooting for. As naughty as he is, he’s the good guy compared to Balkin and Telfer. Corso appeals to the audience with intelligence and emotion and relatability-Nick is the closest one to a normal guy.
The engravings and picture puzzles in the film are also extremely smart, and they look authentic to the viewer. More than just the hidden pictures found in Highlights, Depp sniffs the paper and ruffles the pages-he takes the research approach to the Nine Gates. First time audiences will double take at the scenes featuring the sketches up close. The calculations in the book can only be appreciated with repeated viewings.
It took me several viewings to fully realize the mysterious woman helping Corso. Billed only as “The Girl”, Polanski cast his wife in the ambiguous part. Everywhere he goes, Corso spots the girl appearing and disappearing. Whose side is she on? Corso never has to tell her anything, yet she knows everything about the Nine Gates-and she wears odd socks. Corso names her Green Eyes, and what little special effects found in The Ninth Gate center around this woman. Pay attention to those eyes. The first time I saw The Ninth Gate, I thought the girl was an angel.
I don’t know much about Polanski’s exile due to his charges in the US. I didn’t make it through his Oscar winning turn for The Pianist, and off hand I can only recall Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. From my limited examples, however, it seems as if Polanski is an actor’s director. Along with his Best Director Oscar, he brought a Best Actor performance from Adrian Brody for The Pianist, and since The Ninth Gate, Depp has gone on to an Oscar nomination himself.
The Ninth Gate benefits greatly from its source novel by Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte. All the movie’s smarts lead to a triple decker spiffy ending. Is it Telfer’s orgy that brings about the Prince of Darkness or Balkin’s fire and brimstone? The revelation discovered by Corso is unexpected, and it leaves the audience thinking about The Ninth Gate long after it’s over.
With an R rating, this DVD or video is not meant for children or the prudish. Although the film is thoroughly about the devil, The Ninth Gate is a tale about caution and evil, not like great yet indulgent films such as The Devil’s Advocate. Still, religious audiences may be offended by the ritualistic scenes and the nature of the Nine Gates book.
For macabre yet stylized film fans, The Ninth Gate is a must have with repeat viewings. Fortunately, the film is slightly foreign, a few years old, and just right for the bargain bin. Perfect for a devilishly good night at home.