|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,
(i.e., 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 Seven
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.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and sexuality
Running time: 133 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.