The Ninth Gate

France/Spain/USA 1999

Reviewed by Philip Strick

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Dean Corso, a rare books specialist, is hired by demonologist Boris Balkan to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a book which reputedly reveals a means of entry to the Underworld. Corso intends to compare the two existing copies with Balkan's volume, whose previous owner, Andrew Telfer, committed suicide. Corso discovers that Telfer's widow, Liana, is determined to recover the book. His apartment is ransacked, and a colleague temporarily looking after the book is murdered.

In Spain Corso learns from the antiquarians the Ceniza brothers that some of the book's nine engravings are signed 'LCF', perhaps meaning 'Lucifer'. Comparing the book with the copy owned by Victor Fargas, Corso notes a number of variations in the engravings. Fargas is murdered and the engravings are removed from his copy. Rescued from attack by a mysterious girl, Corso inspects the third surviving edition, held by Baroness Kessler in Paris. He notices discrepancies before the Baroness is killed. Corso realises that the secret of The Nine Gates is to be found in a combination of all three copies.

Liana Telfer obtains Balkan's copy. Corso follows Liana to the mansion where she is to officiate at a Satanist ceremony. Balkan bursts in, strangles Liana, seizes the engravings and the book and prepares to enter Satan's domain. But the invocation is faulty and he dies in a welter of flames. Urged on by the girl, Corso receives the final authentic engraving from the Cenizas and advances through the ninth portal in a blaze of light.

Review

In co-adapting Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel The Dumas Club into his latest film The Ninth Gate, director Roman Polanski has settled, not unreasonably, for only half the story, an ingenious 'spot-the-difference' murder mystery tricked out with fancy artwork and obscure Latin tags. As its title suggests, the rest of the novel concerns itself with the genesis and popularity of The Three Musketeers. In deleting all mention of Alexandre Dumas while filching bits from his share of the narrative, Polanski has created problems for himself. The serious literary gathering of Dumas admirers, for example, has been translated into a curiously anaemic coven of devil-worshippers, while the urbane Balkan, who employs antiquarian Corso to authenticate a book reputed to reveal an entrance to the Underworld, is an uneasy composite of two characters in the novel.

One of the novel's most teasing ambiguities is the suggestion that the mysterious girl, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, who follows Corso has a supernatural origin. Polanski cheerfully substantiates this with close-ups of her peculiar eyes and startling glimpses of the woman in flight, but then seems at a loss what to make of a demon who bleeds like everybody else and reads How to Make Friends and Influence People. Passionately embracing Corso outside a burning castle, presumably to seduce his recruitment to the armies of damned, Satan's envoy then has nothing more useful to offer than a note on Corso's windscreen sending him back to Toledo. The clumsy accident, again a Polanski invention, that puts the final engraving in his hands, completing the mysteries of the three books, brings Corso scurrying back to the castle, where a Satanist ceremony is taking place, on an inexplicably Faustian mission under a repellently lurid sky. Making no obvious sense - how would he gain access to the Ninth Gate if the guidebooks have all been burned? - this ugly image leaves the story in an anticlimactic limbo.

It's no worse, of course, than the dustcart ending of Polanski's 1988 Paris-set thriller Frantic, of which, putting aside the sorcery, The Ninth Gate is something of a re-run. Not only is its journey more interesting than its arrival, but also, like Frantic, The Ninth Gate uses Emmanuelle Seigner as an unfathomable distraction, an undeclared agent for some malevolent conspiracy. Her verbal contests with Corso even echo the abrasive exchanges of another Polanski couple, the duellists of Chinatown (1974), with Johnny Depp in Jack Nicholson's role - although, it's Lena Olin, as Satanist Liana, who first updates Faye Dunaway with the iconic shot of an open cigarette case.

Polanski clearly enjoys such references and diversions, and The Ninth Gate is generously spiced with humorous detail, from a Tex Avery call-sign to the Arab disguise assumed by the girl. The entry code to Balkan's apartment incorporates the number 666, while the picture of a mansion in flames, glimpsed inside, is - like the opening pan around the New York skyline - an image from Rosemary's Baby (1968). A disarmingly frivolous moment briefly gives Corso four eyes when a bottle is smashed over his head, while some effects trickery create two Ceniza brothers (both played by José López Rodero) out of one. It's a nice touch that, living up to their name (Spanish for ash), the Cenizas scatter fag-ends over the priceless pages they examine.

Sternly rejecting any link between his private predicaments and his films, Polanski remains a supreme technician and, perhaps unknowingly, a champion of the dispossessed, his stories told in transit. A Polanski scene is typically in the back of a car, in a hotel foyer, or on the uneasy threshold of someone else's territory. He loves corridors, doorways and sprawling apartments, his cast advancing to camera across the gulf from distant entry-points, and in this sense the massive doors featured on every engraving in The Ninth Gate would seem to offer a special fascination. Not particularly liked at first outing - partly because Johnny Depp, in fake grey temples, personifies the odious Corso of the book a little too accurately - the film is intricately well-made, deserves a second chance despite its disintegrations, and in time will undoubtedly acquire its own coven of heretical fans.

Credits

Director
Roman Polanski
Producer
Roman Polanski
Screenplay
John Brownjohn
Enrique Urbizu
Roman Polanski
Based on the novel
El Club Dumas by
Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Director of Photography
Darius Khondji
Editor
Hervé de Luze
Production Designer
Dean Tavoularis
Music/Score Producer
Wojciech Kilar
©RP Productions
Production Companies
Artisan Entertainment presents a RP Productions/Orly Films/
TF1 Filmproduction co-production with the participation of
BAC Films/Canal+/Kino Visión/Origen Producciones Cinematográficas with the participation of Via Digital
Executive Producers
Wolfgang Glattes
Michel Cheyko
Co-producers
Iñaki Nuñez
Antonio Cardenal
Alain Vannier
Mark Allan
Line Producer
Suzanne Wiesenfeld
Associate Producer
Adam Kempton
Production Co-ordinators
Blanche Wiesenfeld
Spanish Crew:
Ginette Angosse
Production Managers
Spanish Crew:
José López Rodero
Portuguese Crew:
José Mazeda
Location Managers
Jean-Marc Abbou
Spanish Crew:
Antonio Guillén Rey
Portuguese Crew:
Kita Casal Ribeiro
Cristina Mascarenhas
Post-production
Supervisors:
P. Todd Coe
Bruce Everett
Co-ordinator:
Jay Coquillon
Assistant Directors
Michel Cheyko
Christophe Gachet
David Campi Lemaire
Spanish Crew:
Javier Petit
Script Supervisor
Sylvette Baudrot
Casting
Howard Feuer
Associate:
Meredith Tucker
French Director:
Marie-Sylvie Caillierez
Camera Operator
Jean Harnois
Steadicam Operators
Carlos Cabecerán
Jörg Widmer
Richardo Brunner
John Ward
Visual Effects
Duboi
Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc
éclair Numérique
Mikros Image
Special Effects
Gilbert Pieri
Co-ordinator:
Jean-Louis Trinquier
Special Effects
Effects Films
Engravings
Francisco Sole
Art Directors
Gérard Viard
Spanish Crew:
Fernando Gonzales
Portuguese Crew:
José Calvario
Set Decorator
Philippe Turlure
Costume Designer
Anthony Powell
Costume Supervisor
Germinal Rangel
Make-up Artists
Paul Le Marinel
Liliane Rametta
Prosthetics
Waldemar Pokromski
Hairstylists
Jean-Pierre Berroyer
Bettina Miquaix
Titles
Duboi
Music Performed by
Soprano:
Sumi Jo
Orchestra:
The City of Prague Philharmonic
Conductor:
Stepán Konicek
Concert Master
Vladimir Pilar
Music Editor
Suzana Peric
Score Engineer
John Timperley
Soundtrack
Saint-Saëns' "Havanaire"
"Sete saias" - Santinho; "Java Jules"
Sound Engineer
Jean-Marie Blondel
Sound Technician
Keenan Wyatt
Re-recording Mixers
Dean Humphreys
Anne Le Campion
Sound Editor
Laurent Quaglio
ADR Editor
Katia Boutin
Foley Artists
Nicolas Becker
Movement Coach
Chris Gandois
Stunt Co-ordinators
Dominique Fouassier
Car:
Jean-Claude Lagniez
Stunt Coach
Richard Dieux
Cast
Johnny Depp
Dean Corso
Lena Olin
Liana Telfer
Frank Langella
Boris Balkan
James Russo
Bernie
Jack Taylor
Victor Fargas
José López Rodero
Pablo & Pedro Ceniza
Allen Garfield
Witkin
Barbara Jefford
Baroness Frieda Kessler
Emmanuelle Seigner
the girl
Tony Amoni
Liana's bodyguard
Willy Holt
Andrew Telfer
Jacques Dacqmine
old man
Joe Sheridan
old man's son
Rebecca Pauly
daughter-in-law
Catherine Benguigui
concierge
Maria Ducceshi
secretary
Jacques Collard
Gruber
Dominique Pozzetto
desk clerk
Emmanuel Booz
baker
Lino Ribeiro de Sousa
hotel porter
José López Rodero
1st & 2nd workman
Asil Rais
cabby
Bernard Richier
Marinette Richier
café owners
Certificate
15
Distributor
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
11,969 feet
133 minutes
Dolby Digital
In Colour
2:35.1 [Super 35]
French theatrical title
Le Neuvième Porte
Spanish theatrical title
La novena puerta