Ninth Gate, The (France/Spain, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Ninth Gate has two modes: tedious and moronic, with the two not being mutually exclusive. Then, one-hundred minutes into this seemingly interminable movie (which clocks in at about 2:10), things take a turn for the worse and The Ninth Gate spirals out of control. A jaw-droppingly bad mixture of film noir and the occult, this picture plods and meanders its way through one uninspired scene after another until it reaches an improbable, laughable climax followed by an equally ridiculous denouement. Only the lobotomized and the brain dead will be able to figure out the logic embraced by The Ninth Gate.

Director Roman Polanski has the kind of larger-than-life reputation that will easily survive The Ninth Gate. In fact, a few months from now, no one will remember that he was involved with the film (actually, in a few months, no one will remember the film). Polanski's reputation will forever be defined by three things: the murder of his first wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of Charles Manson, his conviction on one count of statutory rape, and his direction of one of the best noir thrillers of all time, Chinatown. Nevertheless, Polanski has not done anything worthwhile in the last two decades, and The Ninth Gate will not raise his name back into the public's consciousness.

The film stars Johnny Depp (who, according to reports from the set, did not get along well with the director) as Dean Corso, a rare books dealer with a reputation for working on the shady side of the law. One day, a frequent client, the vaguely vampiric Boris Balkan (played by ex-Dracula Frank Langella), makes Corso an offer that's too lucrative to refuse, even if it involves some blatantly illegal activities. Balkan has just come into possession of a copy of The Ninth Gate, a 17th century occult tome supposedly co-written by Lucifer. There are only three copies in existence, and Balkan wants Corso to make a trip to Europe, locate those versions, and compare them to his. As the gumshoe-like protagonist begins his adventure, bodies start littering his wake and a former owner of The Ninth Gate, the unhinged Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), seems determined to get it back. To that end, she has vigorous sex with Corso, attacks him like a feral dog, then sends a henchman after him. Meanwhile, Corso receives some unexpected help from an unnamed girl (Polanski's half-his-age wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) whose eyes glow and change color. But is she a succubus or a guardian angel? And will he sleep with her, too? (Since it's pretty much a given that Seigner is going to take her clothes off at some point, there's not too much suspense about the answer to that question.)

Despite all of the plot's contortions and weird detours, it's not that difficult to piece together. It's like bad David Lynch. In a way, I almost wish I had been confused - maybe then the final 30 minutes would have been more satisfying. After all, when you don't understand something, there's at least the possibility that you're missing some profound theme. No such luck here. At least a few things happen during the latter portion of the film (there's a clandestine meeting of a group of Eyes Wide Shut wannabes, Seigner does the expected and takes her clothes off, and one person tries the Kentucky Fried Chicken method of greeting Satan), which is more than can be said of what precedes it. To see the ending, it may be necessary to request a wakeup call beforehand.

Amidst the sloppiness that is The Ninth Gate, Johnny Depp acquits himself reasonably well - he realizes that no one could possibly take the film seriously, so he plays his role with tongue planted in cheek. If only his fellow actors had shared that approach. Lena Olin and Frank Langella have a tendency to froth at the mouth (something they're both known for), and Emmanuelle Seigner shows her usual lack of flair and range. She pouts her way through the movie, wearing dowdy clothing that greatly diminishes her one notable asset: sex appeal. (Polanski surely doesn't put her in his films because he thinks she can act.) When considering The Ninth Gate's cast, one can't help reflecting on the fact that Depp once played the title role in Ed Wood, and that this kind of glorified schlock would have sent Wood into a frenzy of orgasmic bliss.

Artifice abounds. Some will argue that, because the film is about the occult and the manipulation of fate, this is not a liability. I disagree, and view The Ninth Gate's numerous contrivances as an example of lazy, uninspired writing. Not having read the novel from which the script was derived (The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte), I don't know whether to blame the original author, the three men who adapted it for the screen, or a combination of both. Regardless, the result is messy and unconvincing. For anyone on a quest to have a motion picture double feature of unparalleled badness, couple The Ninth Gate with Mission to Mars. Afterwards, if your sanity is still intact and you're not in jail for killing the projectionist, you may never want to see the inside of a multiplex again.

Ninth Gate, The (France/Spain, 1999)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1