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The Ninth Gate
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE NINTH GATE (1999)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor

Written By: John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, Roman Polanski Directed By: Roman Polanski

The Short Version

Perhaps the most elegant devil-oriented movie ever made, and my personal favorite of them.

It’s also my favorite movie of any kind from 1999.

Intellectually interesting combination of deep mystery and caper.

Emmanuelle Seigner is amazing here.

The Ninth Gate is absolutely worth buying; it’s too good to just rent, and demands repeated viewings.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

Just don’t ask who the cheese master’s collaborator was.


Pairs Well With...

JOHNNIE WALKER BLACK LABEL.

Corso always has whisky in front of him; this is the one we get to see the label clearly for.  Blended Scotch, blending antique books… the connection works for me!

“To travel in silence

By a long and circuitous route,

To brave the arrows of misfortune

And fear neither noose nor fire,

To play the greatest of all games

And win, foregoing no expense

Is to mock the vicissitudes of Fate

And gain at last the key

That will unlock the Ninth Gate.”


Even more so than the pop culture lead up to the currently scheduled Apocalypse of December, 2012, the pop culture lead up to the previously scheduled and apparently cancelled Apocalypse of New Year, 2000 was overwhelming to say the least.  One simply could not go to a multiplex theatre in 1999 without at least one if not more screens showing some sort of end of the world disaster or Satan-oriented movie, most of which, as such movies are wont to do, tended to range from low-mediocre to outright dreadful.  Therefore, when I saw the advance notices for The Ninth Gate, my first reaction was to dismiss the film out of hand as yet another in the long line of end of the world devil flicks that were the plague of 1999.

Of course, I went to see it anyway… and was blown away.  This was no stupid Apocalypse flick; indeed, the subject doesn’t even come up.  Nor was it another eye-rolling Satanic cult movie involving goat-oriented headgear and heroes who can only survive the day through prayer or the cross; again, nothing of the like comes up.  Oh, no.  As it turned out, The Ninth Gate is an elegant, intellectual, mysterious, and deliciously understated film which for me easily stood out as the best devil-oriented film I’d ever seen, and the best of any kind I’d seen in all of 1999.

Our story begins with an old man hanging himself dead in the comfort of his private library.  As the camera scans the scene, we find that one book appears to be missing from the shelves, and as we zoom in on the empty space we find ourselves reading the credits, passing through the images of nine gates as we do so.  Nice touch.

Once the credits are done rolling, we meet Mr. Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, A Nightmare on Elm Street).  Corso is an antiquarian specializing in the acquisition of rare books, and he’s got more than a bit of a mercenary reputation amongst his peers.  After we’re given the chance to see him at work acquiring a set of volumes at a bargain price while poisoning the prospects of one of his competitors, we then see him enter the domain of one Mr. Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, Masters of the Universe), a wealthy book publishers who has his own rather special private library.  Specifically, all of the rare books in Balkan’s library deal with the subject of Satan, and thanks to a timely sale, his newest acquisition turns out to be the book that was missing from the shelf of the hanged man we saw before the credits rolled.  That book is called “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows,” written by a man named Torchia in 1666, allegedly with collaboration from Satan himself.  For his trouble, Torchia, we are told, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition during the following year, along with every copy of his book that could be found.  Balkan now has one of only three that remain in the world.  What is even more special about this book, it is said, is that if one successfully learns its secrets, one can use it to conjure up Satan in person.

Balkan now wants Corso to compare his book with the other two to determine whether or not his is authentic.  He’ll pay Corso a handsome fee for his troubles, of course, but when it comes to a book allegedly co-authored by Satan, one really can’t expect things to be so simple…

The Ninth Gate is very peripherally based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, “The Club Dumas,” but when all is said and done, the resemblance is truly passing.  However, unlike so many book-based films – especially those that stray far from the source material, as this one does – The Ninth Gate turns out to be a superb movie, not so much in spite of its changes, but realistically, because of them.  (With that said, “The Club Dumas” is in fact an excellent book, and I heartily recommend it and indeed all of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novels as marvelous reading.)  The Satanic elements introduced here by the imagination of Roman Polanski and his collaborators are fascinating, particularly because unlike most screenplays involving Satan or Satanism out there, this one is so understated and outside cliché.  Indeed, assuming a devil at work in the context of the real world – as this story does, and most incredibly, without dogmatic religious overtones – I can best imagine this film as showing how a devil would really be inclined to operate.  Goat heads are silly, but this… this is thoughtful.

Indeed, the primary thing that The Ninth Gate has in common with “The Club Dumas” is the fact that neither falls under the “casual/light” category.  Some movies demand to be approach with brain in neutral for maximum enjoyment (Doom, for example), but this one asks its viewer to be fully engaged and thinking at all times.  The pace is never quick, but it is steady, and the story is more than engrossing enough that the idea of being bored is never a question for the intellectually engaged audience.  Many of the film’s points and details are subtle, almost demanding multiple viewings to catch them all.  This is a film that very much takes on the character of the person we assume at least to be the protagonist (decide whether or not he is the real protagonist being one of the interesting puzzles of the film): an intellectual and a bibliophile, at first driven by baser motives but as things progress drawn deeply into the mystery he has been asked to investigate.

As such, Johnny Depp, a man who has proven himself capable of stealing any scene he chooses at any time he wants to, puts on a very restrained, very understated performance, and in doing so, carries the weight of the story perfectly.  If he can be steady, we can be steady.  If he can be fascinated, we can be fascinated.

And we are definitely fascinated by Emmanuelle Seigner.

Her character, credited only as The Girl (when Corso tries to guess at her name and starts describing her aloud, his first words are “Green Eyes,” to which she replies that that will do), is easily the film’s most fascinating, for reasons I won’t explain but will instead allow the viewer to discover for him or herself.  I will say that Seigner’s performance is flawless, coming across as casual but obviously without any real casualness at all about it.  When studying her work here, it is very much the old compliment of “making it look easy, even though it’s not.”

Lean Olin, meanwhile, gets to show just slightly less restraint as she plays the only character who might also have been found in a higher-quality Satan-oriented movie.  As are all of her costars in their respective parts, she’s a perfect choice for her role, playing the calculating woman of means while also sexing it up in dangerous fashion.  (I quite approve when Corso gives a physical description of her as “dishy.”)  As for Frank Langella, he not only fits the understated tone of the film perfectly, but when the story does call for him to break that mold and go over the top, as it were, he does so without causing any damage at all to the carefully cultivated atmosphere that surrounds him.  This may indeed be some of his finest work.

That may also be said of Director Roman Polanski, who has to thread a very delicate needle every time he runs the camera; such is the atmosphere he creates.  The Ninth Gate is the sort of film that invites its director to either kill it at every opportunity or prove himself to be a truly unique talent, and Polanski without question demonstrates himself to be on that latter end of the scale.  He’s shown us that he can take it over the top in other films, and done it well; here, he shows that he can also exercise restraint, and get fabulous results.

He gets further assistance from the music of Wojciech Kilar (who also did the score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), which in the end feels like it’s just as much a player in the film as the actors are.  The notes switch freely from deep and mysterious to something out of a caper film, maintaining the thoughtfulness of what’s on the screen while at the same time providing the occasional lightening element when mood requires but dialogue will not allow for a joke.

One additional thing missing from The Ninth Gate that is omnipresent in most devil films is any substantial quantity of blood.  There is a little bit to be had here and there, but certainly far less than you’re likely to expect, and what violence there is in this film is also quick and to the point.  Indeed, one scene in particular which anyone would likely assume should have at least a gallon of blood spilled has none, and yet, it works.  With this in mind, pay close attention when blood does spill; on at least one of those very few occasions, what is done with it is quite important, should one be observant.

And that, in the end, is the key to enjoying The Ninth Gate.  If you approach it with brain engaged, the story and presentation are rich and compelling.  If you approach it as just another devil movie, you’ll walk away at the end wondering what the hell just happened.

Bottom line, The Ninth Gate is easily one of the most unique devil-centered movies ever made, and when all is said and done, I find it to be the best of the bunch.  Elegantly crafted, intellectually fascinating, and performed with brilliant understatement, this is an amazing movie well worth picking up for yourself, especially given how inexplicably inexpensive it seems to have become of late.  Besides, if provocation of thought sounds like your cup of tea, you’re definitely going to want to watch it again.  (Just don’t believe the blu ray box that oddly declares the movie’s runtime to be 93 minutes; it is, in fact, 40 minutes longer than that.)

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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