The Ninth Gate

          As a child Roman Polanski was an eyewitness to one of the world's
  greatest tragedies -- the Holocaust. He watched as his parents were taken
  away to concentration camps where his mother was killed. As an adult, he
  experienced the unfathomable -- his pregnant wife was murdered by the
  Manson family. Later, he was accused of having sex with a minor. So it is
  perhaps understandable that in his art Polanski would address disturbing
  themes that are played out in psychological dramas and black comedies,
  several with supernatural themes. Several of his films are arguably memorable,
Repulsion 1965, Rosemary's Baby 1968, Macbeth 1971) and one,
Chinatown (1974), is a bona fide classic. Since fleeing the USA to avoid
  prosecution over his dalliance with an under-aged teenager, however, his
  output has been uneven. So expectations ran high for his latest foray into
  the occult,
The Ninth Gate, adapted from Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel
El Club Dumas. Unfortunately, it appears that like Stanley Kubrick in
Eyes Wide Shut, Polanski has lost his touch. There are flashes of the old
  brilliance, but the overall result is disappointing.

          The plot of
The Ninth Gate is intriguing. A very wealthy but sinister
  collector, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella in a hammy turn), hires rare book
  expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) to compare his titular acquisition with the
  other two remaining copies that reside in private hand. Balkan explains that
  legend has it that
The Ninth Gate was co-authored by none other than the
  Devil and Balkan believes he has the original. Being the mercenary that he
  is Corso accepts the job and travels to Europe where strange things begin
  to happen and he comes to realize he may be in over his head.

          The story is pure hokum and depending on the directorial guidance
  could have devolved into a campy romp (along the lines of Polanski's
The Fearless Vampire Killers) or a straight-out thriller (not unlike
Rosemary's Baby), but Polanski has not settled on a specific style. Set
  pieces meant to offer chills come across with a thud. Excellent actors like
  Lena Olin (here reduced literally to playing a black widow) and Depp (who
  tries gamely) are stranded. The director even saddles his wife, French actress
  Emmanuelle Seigner, with the most ludicrous part of Corso's proto-guardian
  spirit. Several of her scenes with Depp, wherein she stares meaningfully
  at him as if to hypnotize, provoked peals of unintentional laughter from the
  audience. And their requisite sex scene was about as erotic as root canal
  and as necessary as a fifth wheel on a car. The expert lensing of
  cinematographer Darius Khondji, who is peerless in capturing the dark
  side, and the superb production design of Oscar-winner Dean Tavoularis
The Godfather, Part II) at least make The Ninth Gate visually appealing.

          In a recent interview with
The New York Times, composer Stephen
  Sondheim made reference to how every 25 years a new generation
  supersedes the previous one with the elders now falling out of favor.
  While Sondheim was addressing popular music and the theater, he could
  also have been speaking of motion pictures.
Chinatown and Tess,
  Polanski's last two great films were both made in the 1970s. As a new
  millennium dawns and he foists
The Ninth Gate on audiences, it seems
  to indicate that, regrettably, Polanski's time may have passed.

                                  Rating:                C-
                                  MPAA Rating:       R for some violence and sexuality
                                  Running time:      133 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.