The Ninth Gate
Screenplay : John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, and Roman Polanski (based on the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Johnny Depp (Dean Corso), Frank Langella (Boris Balkan), Lena Olin (Liana Telfer), Emmanuelle Seigner (The Girl), Barbara Jefford (Baroness Kessler), Jack Taylor (Victor Fargas), José López Rodero (Pablo and Pedro Ceniza), James Russo (Bernie)
Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" is a solid, engrossing supernatural mystery-thriller that comes completely undone in the last five minutes by presenting us with a vague, inexplicable ending that simply does not fit with the rest of the film.
Of course, Polanski, the director of such notable films as "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "Chinatown" (1974), is no stranger to downbeat or frustrating endings that refuse to adhere to prevailing narrative rules. In all honesty, the vast majority of his films end in a manner that leaves the viewer bewildered or unsatisfied by denying a conventional, cathartic closure. His last film, 1994's "Death and the Maiden," left the ending completely open and refused to supply any easy answers to the difficult questions its narrative constructed.
However, the ending to "The Ninth Gate" is a different matter altogether. It frustrates not because it forces us to draw our own conclusion or refuses to accept the idea that everything should be happy in the end; rather, it frustrates because it doesn't seem to make sense. The ending is left wide open to interpretation, but the film doesn't supply any defensible framework within which to interpret it. After all, the ninth gate of the title is supposedly the entrance to Hell, so why does the film end with an almost heavenly glowing light that suggests entrance to the underworld as some kind of glorious, grand achievement? This seems to defeat the entire tone of the film's first two hours, which were dark, foreboding, and tense.
Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, the film's protagonist. Corso has all the traits of the traditional hard-boiled detective--heavy smoker and drinker, a loner, questionable ethics--but, instead of finding people, he finds rare books. Corso is a sort of rare-book mercenary who tracks down exceptionally hard-to-find and obscenely expensive tomes for the highest bidder.
At the beginning of the film, he is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a wealthy New York book collector with an interest in old books on Satanism and witchcraft. Balkan's most prized possession is a copy of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows," a book written in 1666 by a heretic named Aristide Torchia, who supposedly collaborated on the book with Satan. Torchia was burned at the stake, and only three copies of "The Nine Gates" were left in existence. Balkan hires Corso to track down the other two copies and determine if they are frauds, because he suspects that there is only one true copy left.
The basic set-up of "The Ninth Gate" is a traditional mystery, with Corso's mission taking him to Europe so he can find the other two copies, one of which is kept in the decaying Spanish mansion of an elderly aristocrat (Jack Taylor), while the other is in the hangs of an eccentric, wheelchair-bound French baroness (Barbara Jefford). All the while, he suspects he is being tracked by Liana Telfor (Lena Olin), the determined widow of the man who sold Balkan his copy of "The Nine Gates" right before committing suicide.
In many ways, "The Ninth Gate" is a cross-genre product that puts a supernatural spin on film noir, two areas in which Polanski has excelled in the past. Like his other neo-noir, "Chinatown," Polanski is able to sustain tension and intrigue for almost two full hours as Corso begins to make various discoveries. His life is in constant jeopardy, and the only reason he survives several attempts on his life is because he is being watched over by a strange young woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who seems to be at once.
Unfortunately, "The Ninth Gate" must eventually come to a conclusion, and it is here that it begins to unravel. The unraveling actually begins once Corso learns the purpose of "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows," which leads him to a cloaked satanic ritual that would have been more chilling had Polanski not used it as a vehicle to mock aging celebrities who are searching for something to support their excessive lifestyles. Some questions are answered in the final reel, while others are left dangling, and then new ones are raised and never answered. The shot that concludes "The Ninth Gate" is so abrupt and seemingly misplaced that it feels like it was imported from another film.
Therefore, the question raised by "The Ninth Gate" is, Does a bad ending completely ruin an otherwise good film? In this case, I would say "no." Some will disagree, because they will feel that the film is a cruel ruse--it tricks you into thinking it knows what it's doing when, in fact, it really has nowhere to go. When I first left the theater, those were my exact thoughts. But, on further reflection, I realize there is too much that is good in the first two hours to discard the film entirely--Depp's understated performance as Corso and Langella's scenery chewing as the suave but creepy Balkan, not to mention cinematographer Darius Khondji's ("Seven") effective palette of black and amber that intensifies both the noir elements of the film and its supernatural overtones. Polanski once again shows adept skill at creating mood and sustaining mystery, and it is unfortunate that all that skill was used in the service of a film that collapses on itself in the end.
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick