Regardless of what one thinks about Polanski's personal life or legal status, the man is clearly one of the great directors of his generation, even if one ignores the 1974 masterpiece that is Chinatown. Starting with his first feature, Knife in the Water (1962), he has mixed his interesting failures with some even more interesting successes. Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) remain two of the most deeply disturbing horror films ever made, while The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and The Tenant (1976) are simultaneously hilariously funny and utterly scary.
Despite his extraordinary understanding of the genre and a mastery of its techniques that is second only to Hitchcock, Polanski abandoned straight horror after The Tenant; instead he made the lush period film Tess (1980), the catastrophic 1986 comedy Pirates (his one true failure), the underrated suspense film Frantic (1988), the sardonic drama Bitter Moon (1992), and the workmanlike big-screen version of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden (1994). So the announcement that his first film in six years would be The Ninth Gate seemed like cause to rejoice.
How then to explain the film's fatal flaws? The Ninth Gate is not without merit: It's full of recognizable Polanski touches, but the whole seems to meander aimlessly, rarely creating a chill, let alone infecting our souls with the profound ontological nausea of Rosemary's Baby or The Tenant. Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a vaguely shady "book detective" -- a mercenary who will stretch the boundaries of both the law and ethics to obtain rare collectibles for his wealthy, obsessed clients. Corso is hired by an effete, sinister millionaire named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, who, with age, seems to be turning into James Mason) to authenticate Balkan's recent prize purchase -- The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a 17th-century manual on how (literally) to raise the devil.
Given that the work was published in Spain at the height of the Inquisition, it's not surprising that both the author and his book -- rumored to have been written in direct collaboration with Lucifer himself -- were incinerated by the authorities. Only three copies are said to exist; Balkan is willing to pay Corso an exorbitant sum to go to Europe and closely compare his copy with the other two, looking for irregularities. "There's nothing more reliable than a man who can be bought for hard cash," he proclaims.
Even before Corso can leave New York, strange and violent things begin to happen, suggesting that more is at stake here than mere bibliomania. The previous owner of Balkan's copy committed suicide immediately after selling it; now his scheming widow (Lena Olin) is willing to go to any length to get it back. Others who come into contact with the book are murdered; attempts are made on Corso's life; and the detective keeps running into a beautiful, mysteriously otherworldly young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife), who may be either devil or angel. Once in Europe, Corso is followed by both the young woman -- she never is given a name -- and by the widow's murderous minion (Tony Amoni). It becomes clear that, to raise the devil, one needs actual physical possession of the book; so the stakes are, for believers at least, monumentally high.
The Ninth Gate is an adaptation of El Club Dumas, a bestseller by Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Pérez-Reverte's book is extraordinarily clever in precisely those ways that translate least well to the screen. Influenced by -- and peppered with apparent references to -- such prose tricksters as Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and Harry Mathews, the book is a metaphor for the experience of reading books; a faithful adaptation would translate to the screen about as well as Rear Window, a metaphor for the experience of watching movies, would translate to the printed page. (And yes, I know that Rear Window was based on a short story, but I'm talking about Hitchcock's Rear Window, not Cornell Woolrich's far different original.)
So Polanski and his collaborators have necessarily stripped away all of Pérez-Reverte's book but the supernatural plot line. (One amusing effect of this is that Alexandre Dumas père, who is so important in the novel that his name is in the title, is not even passingly referred to.) Unfortunately, without all the narrative razzle-dazzle, the supernatural aspects are revealed as the weakest elements in the work, suggesting that the book simply shouldn't have been transferred to the screen at all. (An earlier Pérez-Reverte adaptation, Jim McBride's 1994 Uncovered, was likewise ill-advised; it understandably failed to get theatrical distribution in the U.S.)
We are left with a rambling story about an unsympathetic protagonist, who is the target of one or more interchangeable bad guys; there is some mystery -- not very hard to crack -- about who is behind his persecution, but it's hard to care. It makes no ultimate difference to us who's behind it all. And the final revelations are either highly ironic or simply murky.
The Ninth Gate shares a number of elements with a recent work from another aging enfant terrible -- Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. (Although Kubrick was 70 when he died and Polanski is now 66, it has always been impossible to regard either as an old man.) Both feature young stars playing thoroughly modern characters, wandering through a paranoid, surreal landscape that seems oddly anachronistic. Both feature castles full of wealthy people engaged in pompous, old-fashioned demonic rituals that are too ludicrous to be truly scary. At least Polanski seems more aware of the silliness of his demonic-ritual scene: The villain's entrance is hilariously dismissive of the tackiness of it all. Unfortunately it's followed by another demonic ritual scene, the effect of which is far less comic.
It's easy to imagine that the villain's attitude is reflective of Polanski's toward the project itself. "Here I am," the villain seems to be saying, "a brilliant man, lowered to hobnobbing with superstitious inferiors. What has the world come to?"
Likewise Polanski seems disengaged by The Ninth Gate -- as though offended that this pseudo-profound spook story is the best material he can wrangle while in exile from Hollywood. (The scuttling of The Double, his Dostoyevsky project with John Travolta, certainly didn't help.) There are moments when The Ninth Gate shows the director's unique comic sense of creepiness: a scene with twin bookbinders -- both played by José López Rodero, who is cleverly composited into one frame -- has the same droll, offbeat eeriness that informs much of Cul-de-Sac (1966) and The Tenant.
But such moments are too few and far between. Despite a game attempt by Depp and excellent support from Seigner, Olin, and Langella, The Ninth Gate has a tired, offhand feel to it.