The Ninth Gate (1999)

by Todd R. Ramlow


Ars Diavoli

In The Ninth Gate, perennial provocateur Roman Polanski throws in his contribution to the millennial apocalypse/Armageddon/hell-on-earth films that have recently been such a staple of the action/adventure genre. It is, actually, something of a stretch to call The Ninth Gate an action film (although it is somewhat of an adventure, if a largely predictable one) for, with the exception of a few short edge-of-your-seat fight scenes, the film is rather slow moving. This is not necessarily a criticism, for the film’s meticulous and plodding pace is, perhaps, appropriate to its intellectual preoccupations.

The film’s bookishness is, actually, one of the things I like best about it. Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an unscrupulous rare book dealer who, in the opening scenes, we first see swindling (what we presume is) an Alzheimer victim’s family out of a priceless edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Throughout the film we are reminded (as he is told by others over and again) that Corso is a mercenary. Expert on demonology and arcane lore Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), has recently acquired a copy of the rarest of demonological codices, The Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows, and has some doubts about its authenticity. And so he hires Corso to track down the other two existing copies, compare them to his, and figure out which is the authentic text. It seems that the book, which might actually have been written in collaboration with the devil himself, if properly interpreted, gives instruction on how to invoke Satan, enter his realm, and become his all-powerful minion.

cover art

The Ninth Gate

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford

(Artisan Entertainment)

What follows, then, is a formulaic hunt for the two other texts throughout Europe, with the requisite secret society of Satan worshiping bad-guys hot on Corso’s tail, and in which the secrets of the book’s authorship, its authenticity, and its keys to hell are unraveled, leading to the inevitable meeting with the devil. Nonetheless, even with its rather too obvious narrative structure, I have to admit I kind of enjoyed The Ninth Gate. Most likely this film will really only appeal to bibliophiles, people who like spending long periods of time in libraries, poring over old, musty books. If this doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to rent Arnie’s End of Days, Keanu and Al’s The Devil’s Advocate, or even Patricia Arquette’s Stigmata instead.

The other thing I like about The Ninth Gate is that it doesn’t give up the devil. Unlike these other recent films (even the South Park movie is guilty, although it’s by far the best of the lot), in which Satan is already with us or comes to earth to wreak apocalyptic havoc, in The Ninth Gate, the devil never appears. Of course, this saves us from the obligatory over-the-top, special effects laden showdown between the Prince of Lies and our intrepid hero. What this also does is shift the logic of these recent films, in which a select group of individuals must save all of mankind from Lucifer’s dark designs. Here, supreme evil is something that must be sought out, or sought after, and it is an individual quest. The devil doesn’t come to us, we must go to him; after all, the ninth gate itself isn’t a portal for evil to enter our world, but a passageway through which we reach hell. Furthermore, contradicting Christian dogmatism, which would have us believe that stealing, lying, or masturbating are one-way tickets to the fiery pits, in The Ninth Gate reaching the presence of Satan is not an easy job.

In the unending search for the devil undertaken by many of the characters in the film, The Ninth Gate also revives the notion of the seductiveness of evil, a notion which has, for obvious reasons, been largely out of fashion since at least the end of World War II. In Polanski and screenwriter John Brownjohn’s story (which is based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, El Club Dumas), the lure of recondite knowledge, and the glamour of the beauty, wealth, power, and riches promised by congress with the devil are, seemingly, irresistible. The vehicle through which we witness the transformative charms of these seductions is Dean Corso. At the start of the film Corso is, as I remarked above, only and entirely a mercenary, serving his own self-interests. This never actually changes, although the objects of Corso’s desires do. What begins as Boris Balkan’s search for the authentic Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows and access to Satan’s realm becomes Corso’s own, after he unravels the text’s many mysteries and witnesses the lengths to which it drives people to possess it. He himself becomes obsessed with finding, opening, and passing through the ninth gate.

To help him along the way, the succubus Girl (Emmanuel Seigner) pops up continually, helping Corso navigate perils and escape the bad guys’ traps. The film goes to great lengths to try to keep us guessing about the “nature” of Girl, or about whose side she’s playing on, and Corso is clearly befuddled by her presence until the very end. But this question is, perhaps, the least engaging and frankly lamest part of the story. The film makes it obvious (repeatedly) that the Girl bears a striking resemblance to the demoness riding a dragon in one of the illustrations in the diabolical “Nine Gates,” and one has to work quite hard to believe that Corso, after spending days examining the book and its pictures, would never remark on this similarity himself.

For all its shortcomings, there is a sort of guilty pleasure (at least for me) in watching The Ninth Gate — perhaps this is a residue of my own adolescent boy fascinations with fantasy, Satanism, arcane lore, and the like, but, really, what early-teenaged boy isn’t at one time or another so fascinated? Johnny Depp, as always, is excellent. The plasticity and expressiveness of his face are a constant joy to watch, as he has proven over and over. Frank Langella is Frank Langella, but, as Polanski remarks in his production notes, as the character Boris Balkan spends much of the film filtered through a telephone, he needed an actor with an impressive voice, and Frank does have a nice set of pipes.

Although nowhere near the great self-indulgence of a Satan-loving schlock-fest like The Evil Dead, or the studied malevolence of The Exorcist or Damien: The Omen, under Roman Polanski’s direction, The Ninth Gate aspires — in its bookishness, its trafficking in the seductions of forbidden knowledge, its secret-society stylings — to include itself in the pretentious “ars diavoli” with which the film is so preoccupied.

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