** 1/2 Stars
Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, Emannuelle Seigner, Frank Langella
Directed by Roman Polanski
Writing credits: John Brownjohn, Roman Polanski, Enrique Urbizu
Artisan Entertainment * 127 minutes
You'd think that Roman Polanski would have long since given up the Satanic beat, what with his history and perhaps the definitive Satanic film, ROSEMARY'S BABY, under his belt. But after a six-year absence since 1994's DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, the director with perhaps the strangest karma in film history is dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight again.
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a New York antiquarian book broker. He is a knowledgeable, poised, confident shyster who is not above essentially robbing the heirs of a book collector of a valuable four-volume, seventeenth-century, edition of Don Quixote, for peanuts. This makes him, of course, the expert of choice for publisher Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, disguised as Gore Vidal).
Balkan is a unique kind of collector, whose interests lie solely in books about the devil. He has come into possession of one of only three known copies of a seventeenth-century text called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows, said to have been adapted by Venetian author Aristide Torchia from a book written by Satan himself. Balkan has concerns, however, or so he says, about its authenticity, and engages Corso to examine the other two, in order to determine which are truly authentic.
Corso, intrigued by the strangely compelling lithographic illustrations as much as by the promised cash, agrees to the assignment, even after his business partner meets an untimely demise in a way that eerily resembles one of the lithographs, and even after a sexual liaison gone wrong with Liana Telfer, widow of the book's previous owner (Lena Olin), who now, it seems, wants the book back.
In the course of his all-expenses paid journey, the priceless volume in tow, Corso is followed by a mysterious blond girl (Emmanuelle Seigner, a.k.a. Mrs. Roman Polanski) who has been shadowing him since the beginning of the film, and who seems to seen THE MATRIX more than a few times, picking up Carrie-Anne Moss' improbable leaping skills along the way. In Spain he encounters bookbinders the Ceniza brothers (José Lopéz Rodero), who provide intriguing information about The Ninth Gates as well as about the seemingly voracious Mrs. Telfer. They also point out that the signature on some of the engravings in Balkan's copy are signed LCF, which they claims is the signature of the Old Horned One himself.
The plot thickens as Corso continues his journey to see the other two copies, until he realizes the true significance of his mission. To reveal anything further is to ruin the film for those who may wish to see it.
The first hour and a half of THE NINTH GATE is tons of fun -- a gripping detective story, told in true slow-but-relentless Polanski fashion, as we too begin to become intrigued with the pentangle-embossed text. Shot by Darius Khondji, who also provided the singular beauty of THE BEACH, its New York, Spain, and Paris locales are eerily shot in shades of green, blue, gold and brown, each interior more lush than the one before. Hand-held cameras give a virtual reality effect to our tours through the ancient, labyrinthine domiciles of the decadently rich book collectors. It's a visual feast as well as being a strangely compelling story. However, in the last half-hour, with its car chase, gun violence, a Satanic ritual scene that looks like an outtake from EYES WIDE SHUT, and Langella, a usually fine actor, almost literally chewing the ancient, crumbling stone walls of Boris Balkan's ancient stone castle with his overacting; the film completely falls apart.
Johnny Depp has great fun in the early scenes, as he bamboozles the uneducated into thinking their priceless tomes are worth nothing and banters with Balkan and other book dealers; but as the film progresses, he seems to fall more and more asleep. In his obligatory climactic (so to speak) sex scene with Seigneur (a completely gratuitous turn of events seemingly plugged into the movie so that Polanski can say to the guys who came home from AMERICAN BEAUTY with fantasies of their daughters' friends dancing in their heads, "Hey, guys, look what I get to sleep with!"), he seems to have just awakened to find a naked French babe straddling him in the moonlight.
Lena Olin, the former sexpot from ROMEO IS BLEEDING, is creepy and curiously un-erotic as she too chews the scenery as the truly diabolical Liana Telfer. Someone should tell Olin that sex bombs of a Certain Age can no longer get by on kittenish hair tossing. They have to change their schtick at some point, or risk turning into Gloria Swanson.
The only performances that truly shine in this film are those by José Lopéz Rodero as the Cenizas, who finish each other sentences like bookbinding Coen brothers, and by late-inning replacement Barbara Jefford, known to British drama fans as the bluestocking Aunt Lydia in THE HOUSE OF ELLIOTT and most recently seen as the Marquise who begins Frances O'Connor on the road to ruin in the Masterpiece Theatre MADAME BOVARY. Jefford is a scene-stealer as the Baroness Kessler, another collector and Satanic text enthusiast, who enlightens Corso about The Ninth Gates' history, noting with spitting contempt her own departure from a secret society called the Order of the Silver Serpent, which was formed to perpetuate the teachings of The Nine Gates as decadent millionaires like The Widow Telfer (and presumably the Sidney Pollack character in EYES WIDE SHUT) took over the leadership.
What's infuriating about THE NINTH GATE is just how close to a really good Satanic movie it is, only to fall prey to directorial self-indulgence. The plotline about the lithographs is strangely compelling in and of itself, without the associated baggage, the gratuitous showcasing of Mrs. Polanski's mammaries, and the MATRIX tricks. Polanski has successfully walked the Satanic beat once before in the classic ROSEMARY'S BABY, but unfortunately, fails to repeat that feat here.
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