Made in Heaven
Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp. The match seems made in heaven, these two notoriously eccentric, fascinating, and difficult geniuses, plying their crafts, inspiring brilliance in one another. With The Ninth Gate, Polanski directs his first feature since 1995’s dark and difficult Death and the Maiden and Depp stars in a role well-suited to his particular talents, that is, he plays an awkward, slightly strange and anti-heroic protagonist with a killer smile on the rare occasion that he uses it. And the story includes other hopeful elements: twisty-turny characters and sumptuous old world locations (France, Spain, Portugal). If nothing else, we might hope for a film that is perverse, elegant, or imaginative. Sadly, The Ninth Gate is only a little perverse, and surprisingly ungainly and obvious.
It begins well enough. Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, El Club Dumas, it concerns Dean Corso (Depp), a cynical young man who makes his living tracking down rare books for wealthy collectors. At the start of the film, he’s commissioned by the ignominiously named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to find alternative versions of his own precious discovery The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, a manual of satanic invocation published in 1666, featuring engravings reportedly made by Lucifer himself. So far, so not-bad. And the moment when Corso and Balkan make their deal is actually rife with possibility: they stand amid Balkan’s stacks of super-rare books, on a top floor of some towering NY building, huge windows revealing the city stretching for miles, as they fidget and gawk over Balkan’s copy of the exalted tome. So much drama. Corso flips the pages, listens carefully and opines, “Sounds kosher.’‘
Depp is, of course, the perfect man for the job, even if the mercenary Corso ends up being in over his head. Depp’s singular mix of edginess and goofballness (which he has used so adeptly in his films with Tim Burton), lends The Ninth Gate a lightness of touch that it desperately needs. His quizzical expressions denote the comedy in scenes where it might not be obvious, as when he discovers a corpse, tongue lolling horrifically, and he only looks puzzled rather than alarmed; or perhaps again when he’s about to be consumed by flames while trapped in a hole in the floor, and his own eyes go wide and roll as if to say, “Here we go again.’‘
Throughout the film, Corso is rather caught out by circumstances, even though he imagines he’s in control (in this regard, he’s reminiscent of one Jake Gittes). His insolence has consequences, mostly for everyone else. His first friend to suffer is Bernie (James Russo), a slightly lower rent book dealer than Corso. It’s clear as soon as he slimes up against Corso that the Bernie’s deadmeat, but Corso’s lack of distress at the murder scene (arranged to resemble one of those engravings) tells you lots about him: he frowns a bit, recovers the stash he left with his erstwhile friend, and within minutes, he’s on a jet to Spain, phoning Balkan to complain about the mess. As it turns out, Balkan spends much of the movie off screen, directing Corso by phone, so that Langella’s supersmooth performance is mostly long distance. When he does come back into view, it’s only briefly, to chastise a congregation of very conventional be-caped devil worshipers for their silliness (a group whose members look sadly and unimaginatively like the folks who teased Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut) and then to writhe and moan about his own special relationship with the Horned One.
This means that Depp must carry the film’s plodding action, as he meets a series of idiosyncratic bibliophiles, each with his or her own continental-roguish accent (including a pair of elderly Spanish twins, played by Jose Lopez Rodero). Indeed, Corso plods a bit himself. For all his upscale-urban superiority, he takes forever to figure anything out. With each copy of the book he finds, he carefully makes a chart of how the engravings do or don’t match up against Balkan’s copy you’ve figured out the puzzle long before he does. And when he meets the film’s designated femme fatale, Liana Tefler (Lena Olin), you’re way ahead of him. She actually has to come to his dark-wooded apartment, seduce him, and then assault him with her blood red fingernails before he gets the idea that she’s untrustworthy.
He’s also slow when it comes to the unnamed Girl who comes to his rescue on several occasions. This mysterious Girl (Emmanuelle Seigner, Mrs. Polanski) has long wildchildish hair, rides a black motorcycle, and can kickbox in slow motion. Not to mention the facts that her catlike eyes glow green when she’s aroused and her likeness appears in one of the engravings, riding a dragon, no less. Because you see this picture a few times, it’s really hard to miss that she looks like this oldschool demon-chick, but somehow the resemblance eludes Corso. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe he’s looking for trouble the way that most of those hard-boiled, moralistic guys can never admit they are, intuiting the Girl is his best lead and taking a certain masochistic pleasure in her efforts to screw him in various ways. She hangs around in shadows, so that Corso can spot her on his cross-European train and in his Portuguese hotel lobby, or guns her big bike along a dark back road just in time to run off a loiterer with sinister designs on our hero.
Our hero is the film’s most beguiling aspect, in that he is so apparently apathetic, even lethargic, for so much of the film. While he repeatedly demonstrates a quick intellect, sense of opportunism, and general curiosity concerning things demonic, Corso’s hardly in avid pursuit of anything. His entire adventure appears almost accidental, something that happens to him instead of something in which he has a vested interest.
Even when he does, as he must, participate in an eerie echo of the climactic fucking-the-devil scene of Rosemary’s Baby, it’s so cheesy as to seem mundane. As our tour guide through or rather, toward hell, Corso seems appropriately confounded, even a little bored. This story is so done.