Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999) was on TV a few days ago, split into two parts with a news bulletin in the break… for some reason my digibox chose to clip off the end of the first part, and excise an entire scene, but thanks to some kind soul on YouTube I managed to fill in the blanks, and am now ready to file my report.
For those who don’t know, this supernatural noir thriller stars Johnny Depp as ‘Dean Corso’, a rare-book dealer of dubious morals, who is hired to validate the authenticity of a seventeenth-century grimoire titled “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”, by comparing it to the only other two known copies in existence. The engraved illustrations in the book, which are credited to a mysterious artist known simply as “LCF”, are reputed to contain a riddle, which once solved, will summon up the Devil incarnate! Corso’s employer, ‘Boris Balkan’ (Frank Langella), supposedly bought his copy from its previous owner shortly before he committed suicide… but his grieving widow, ‘Liana Telfer’ (Lena Olin), disputes the sale, and seems willing to go to any lengths to reclaim her property. As the collateral damage starts piling up around him, Corso is grateful to find a “guardian angel” in the form of an enigmatic, ass-kicking femme fatale, known only as ‘The Girl’ (Emmanuelle Seigner).
Despite its fancy European locations, quality cast, acclaimed director and sophisticated veneer, this movie is pure hokum… but thankfully it never seems to takes itself too seriously, and there’s a lot of intentional comedy to chuckle at, alongside the unintentional. Sometimes it’s hard to decide which is which though… from incidental details, like the fact Balkan uses “666” as the security code for his priceless library, despite being a well-known expert on the occult, with a particular fascination in Satanism… to wondering why Liana didn’t simply use legal measures to reclaim the book, or at least prevent Corso from swanning off around Europe with it. I mean, she just takes his word for the fact that there was a legal bill of sale, and then immediately sets about chasing him down like a cut-price Bond villain! It’s also one of those films where the supposedly crafty and streetwise protagonist goes along with whatever an attractive stranger tells them to do, even though she point-blank refuses to answer a single question he asks about who she is, where they’re going, or what she hopes to achieve once they get there. I know there’d be no story if he just shrugged her off, but I still find it frustrating, all the same.
Of course, I’m a sucker for movies about Satanic cults and all the skulduggery that goes with them, and I imagine this is the sort of story that is worth watching a second time around, to see how all the pieces fit together, so I know I’ll probably end up buying it on DVD someday. Heck, it’s worth it for the sequence with the black robes and pentagram necklaces alone!
Fun fact: Depp met his long-time partner and baby-mama Vanessa Paradis while shooting this movie. Mazel tov!
Not-so-fun fact: German actress Hildegard Knef (of Witchcraft fame) was set to play ‘Baroness Kessler’, the owner of the third copy of “The Nine Gates”, but had to drop out due to illness.