The biggest revelation in Roman Polanski’s new film “The Ninth Gate” is that apparently, Satan himself once wrote a book. Sure, we knew he had ghost-written a few things — “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” etc. — but to actually sit down and pen a tome himself…! What a prized possession THAT would be!
And indeed it is in this Gothic, creepily slow-moving film about a rare-books collector named Corso (Johnny Depp) who is hired by serpentine multi-millionaire Balkan (Frank Langella) to verify the authenticity of his copy of “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows.” Seems that only three copies of the Satan-authored guide to unleashing your inner devil (written in 1666!) are in existence; Balkan has poorly explained reasons to believe that only one of them is legit. He has no problem believing his copy might be one of the two forgeries; if that is the case, Corso’s mission is to obtain — at all costs — the one true version and bring it back to him.
The other two copies are in Portugal and France, so Corso is soon visiting the books’ owners, comparing their copies with Balkan’s copy, in a game similar to those “spot the differences between these two cartoons” features you see in the kids’ section of the newspaper sometimes.
It’s not long before Corso realizes that wherever he goes, people die. Evidently — and who would have suspected such a thing of a book written by Lucifer? — these things are pretty powerful. And some people really want them. Balkan, obviously, does, but so does one Mrs. Telfor (Lena Olin), whose recently deceased husband is the one who sold Balkan his copy in the first place, against her wishes.
There’s also a woman without a name (Emmanuelle Seigner) who follows Corso around, apparently helping him in his quest to not just find the authentic book, but to unleash its poorly explained powers and achieve the poorly explained goal that one can achieve if one uses the book in a poorly explained (but apparently very precise) manner. This woman can float in mid-air, for reasons that, it goes without saying, are poorly explained. (In fact, they’re not explained at all, and Corso never even notices her doing it.)
Polanski may be a genius in some quarters, but this movie is really just a Dungeons-&-Dragons-style devil-and-magic book put on film. As such, it has people saying things like, “Flattery will get you nowhere,” and “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” and Corso receiving instructions over the phone from the Bond-villain-esque Balkan, who begins: “Listen very carefully, Mr. Corso.”
The film is never scary; it occasionally manages to be tense and creepy, and while it ends without satisfying even one’s basic desire for cohesion in a movie, it’s never boring, either.
C (; )