Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” is a sardonic detective thriller peppered with carefully crafted pleasures, not the least of which is a snide approach to wealthy people with a decadent streak. Whether general audiences will find the story sufficiently suspenseful to turn out in large numbers is up for grabs, for although the pieces fit nicely, this is really a shaggy devil story whose giddy, ironic tone may throw viewers expecting a scary movie.
Pic, adapted from one of Spain’s all-time bestsellers, opened Wednesday in Gaul in a crowded field of new releases. It bows in December Stateside, where Artisan may have to find a hook stronger than the pairing of Polanski and Johnny Depp to lure ticketbuyers.
When a powerful New Yorker, hellbent on completing his collection of rare books concerning Lucifer, commissions an ambitious young broker to track down two special tomes, the lad has a devil of a time completing his assignment. Rosemary was mighty bummed out when she discovered who had fathered her baby, but this go-between — played with suave expediency by Depp — has no such qualms.
Pic’s always assured, baroquely funny tone is set in opening sequence, in which an elderly gentleman in a book-lined study pens a suicide note before hanging himself from the chandelier. His widow, Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), doesn’t know yet that her late spouse (played by ace art director Willy Holt, who designed Polanski’s “Bitter Moon”) sold one of his most valuable books — one of only three known copies of “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows” — to a fellow collector the day before.
Dean Corso (Depp) is a crafty, mercenary rare-book broker, a sort of gumshoe who tracks down volumes for wealthy clients. Filthy-rich Manhattanite Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) now owns the Telfer book, whose author was burned at the stake in the 1600s for having allegedly written and illustrated it in a league with the devil. Balkan engages Corso to examine the other two editions, which are in the possession of a Mr. Fargas in Portugal and a baroness named Kessler in Paris. His mission — on an unlimited expense account — is to compare the three books to ascertain whether any are forgeries.
Corso starts with Mrs. Telfer, who seems tame enough but soon demonstrates that she would really like to get the book back. Corso also starts glimpsing a striking young woman in sneakers (Emmanuelle Seigner) at the oddest moments. When Corso’s bookshop-owning pal Bernie (James Russo) ends up dead — strung upside down just like the unfortunate fellow in the first of nine etchings in the valuable book — Corso hightails it to Europe with the trouble-attracting tome in his ever-present shoulder bag.
His visit to the Ceniza Bros. bookshop in Toledo, Spain, where the Telfers acquired the book, is a hoot. The twin brothers give the already quite knowledgeable Corso a short course in the marvels of bygone printing and bookbinding. It turns out the ancient engravings that illustrate the three copies of the book give a new meaning to underground literature. And somebody — or more than one somebody — will stop at nothing to assemble the clues needed to conjure Satan.
Although it’s a complete coincidence, it’s worth noting that there are several similarities between “The Ninth Gate” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” With the Polanski film arriving in the U.S. five months after the Kubrick (in France the positions are reversed, with “Gate” preceding “Eyes” by three weeks), moviegoers might wonder, “What is it with elder statesmen of cinema sending handsome young men on creepy, addictive quests that lead to wealthy and powerful people with a more than passing interest in black masses and orgies?”
In addition to convincingly re-creating New York City in European studios, both films are based on foreign lit, beautifully made and ultimately rather silly — there must have been a shortage of burnooses in Europe while both pics were in production.
If your story calls for a street-smart American who might be able to beat erudite Europeans at their own centuries-old game, Depp is a good choice. Olin does her determined hellcat routine with gusto, Langella convinces even in pic’s loonier moments, Shakespearean vet Barbara Jefford is terrific as the baroness, and Seigner, while not as versatile as the other thesps, is well cast here as an enigmatic graduate of the Deus Ex Machina School of Plot Points.
In an amusing touch, the twin Ceniza Bros. are played by one Jose Lopez Rodero, who turns up in two more small roles in the film and also happens to be the film’s production manager in Spain.
Dean Tavoularis’ production design is aces, Darius Khondji’s widescreen lensing on location in France, Portugal and Spain is fine, and Wojciech Kilar’s score is delightfully, playfully ominous. There are already rumblings that Polanski’s Euro version may be altered for U.S. release.