The Ninth Gate

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
March 12, 2000

Roman Polanski is best known to American audiences as the director Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. Even those who don't follow film probably know that his wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by Charles Manson's gang, and that he fleed from America after being convicted for statutory rape. Unfortunately, his career never really recovered making films overseas. His latest work seems like an odd parody (or rip-off -- I can't tell which) of his two most famous films.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an expert on old books, specializing in authenticating and appraising rare volumes for collectors. He is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to authenticate a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, one of only three existing copies. Balkan suspects that only one of the books is original, and he sends Corso to Europe to examine the other two and compare them.

Corso soon finds that Balkan's copy was bought from bibliophile Andrew Telfer shortly before he hanged himself. Andrew's widow, Liana (Lena Olin), was unaware of the sale, since she was the one interested in its alleged power: the ability to conjure the devil. Corso then goes to Spain, Portugal, and France on his search, with an enigmatic French girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) following him around.

The Ninth Gate (based on the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte) tries to start out like a cerebral noir with a little dark humor thrown in (sound familiar?). For a while, it would seem like the first thriller that was endorsed by Barbara Bush's literacy foundation. That is, if it were at all thrilling, which isn't exactly the case. Then it tries to become a gothic tale of satanism (sound really familiar?). By the end, however, it seems that Polanski hired Roger Corman to finish the direction, and we enter the realm of high camp.

Is Polanski just playing a joke on everybody, or does he really expect us to believe this is sincere? I remember having a similar dilemma with last year's End of Days (which also had a lot to do with the devil), except that this film has a once-great director at the helm and a great actor in the leading role. And yet, it fails just the same. I really enjoyed Depp, as always, but Seigner's character added very little that wasn't ridiculous. The fact that she's married to Polanski may explain a few things.

So, this just another example of how many established directors cannot make decent films these days. Last week we saw Mike Nichols and John Schlesinger embarrass themselves. The week before that saw bad tidings for John Frankenheimer. It should seem fitting that not only Polanski take a fall this weekend, but also Brian De Palma. You can see his recent tragedy in my review for Mission to Mars.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Ninth Gate (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
The Ninth Gate (1999) -- VHS
The Ninth Gate (1999) -- DVD
The Club Dumas, a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (translated by Sonia Soto) -- Hardcover
The Club Dumas, a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (translated by Sonia Soto) -- Paperback
The Club Dumas, a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (translated by Sonia Soto) -- Audio Cassette (read by David Warner)
The Ninth Gate: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
Review Archive
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings

Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan