I guess I was just in an Old World Weird kind of mood!
[EDIT: The Ninth Gate is actually based on a book called The Club Dumas, which I am currently reading. I’ll post another entry on a book/movie comparison once I’m done!]
If you take it on its own, The Ninth Gate as a supernatural horror movie is less a slow boil and more fossilization. It doesn’t plod, it glaciates. I do like the film, but while watching I had to mentally reboot my expectations for pacing.
I read about The Ninth Gate in some horror or film magazine probably, and was really looking forward to its release. I can’t recall why I didn’t see it in the theater, but I know I didn’t, I rented it when I was working at Blockbuster at the time. I just remember seeing the wall of boxes and thinking ‘Whoa! There are so many! This must be good!’
Well, the massive media campaign was less about the film’s quality and more about the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski: it was his first foray into supernatural horror since the now-classic Rosemary’s Baby, and also one of his first big American films since (what he probably refers to as) “the unpleasantness.” Ew.
The movie itself is serviceable, even classy. The elements of the supernatural are so mild that they are mere suggestion rather than anything really concrete, and the horror elements have more to do with the depths of human depravity.
In the opening scene, we see one of those type of rooms that movies love to show us: the library of someone disgustingly rich. OLD money rich. There’s more leather on the walls than in the entire state of Texas, everything is covered in gilt and the furniture looks like prime Alpha Vampire vintage. It’s the kind of shit that practically requires a chemistry degree to clean, like knowing what linseed oil is and how it is applied. I heard a maid once tried to bring in some Pledge Wipes but like Belvedere the butler saw it and was NOT HAVING IT and she was immediately sent away without a reference. True story. Somewhere. Probably.
And this beautiful and elegantly appointed scene is only marred when its owner finishes his letter, sets down a pen that probably is worth more than my car, and hangs himself from the chandelier, which I KNOW is worth more than my car. The camera takes a long, slow journey across the room to focus on a conspicuous gap in the library: a book is obviously missing.
Anyhoo, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a fortyish antique and rare book dealer of questionable morals. Sporting gray temples and spectacles, he exudes the air of that rumpled, bookish poetry/drama/art history professor who totally sleeps with his students, which is what I always pictured Johnny Depp doing were he not acting. Or maybe he’d be happily married and be turning down students’ offers of ‘extra credit work’ for that passing grade, I don’t know, he seems a pretty decent guy. Anyway, we are introduced to Corso (which is just a flat out cool name: CORSO!) helping some folks price their father’s antique book collection. The father in question is still alive, but has had a stroke and is sitting in the room, staring out into space as his children are advised on how best to dispose of his priceless collection. When Corso artfully underbids on some ‘lesser’ tomes, the poor old man’s eye bulges and his fingers clutch uselessly in rage: Corso is basically robbing them blind.
Corso is kind of an awesome character, even though he’s a bit of a sleaze. He puts me in mind of John Constantine from the Hellblazer graphic novels (and they are apparently doing a show that will be truer to the comics than the movie was). However, while Corso has a well-deserved rep as a dirtbag, the only way he’s hurt anyone has been financially.
And of course that changes.
Charged by Boris Balkan (a perfectly cast Frank Langella) to authenticate an incredibly rare book, Corso is seduced and then attacked. He leaves the book with a friend and the friend is murdered and his shop rifled, although the book remains unfound. Troubled both by these developments and the fact that Balkan doesn’t seem to give two shits about his book leaving a trail of bodies, Corso heads to Europe in order to find the other two existing copies of the book. Having worked at Border’s Books and Music in my college years, I can totally believe that people would be willing to kill over a book. YOU try telling a Mom that the last copy of ‘Lord of the Flies’ or whatever from her kid’s reading list just got sold.
Once he’s there, the movie becomes more like a travelogue of beautiful European scenery. Portugal, Spain, France, everywhere the man goes is picturesque. Little bistros and cafes, stone-cobbled streets, tree-lined avenues, hillsides, huge old houses where elderly shut-ins drink booze and play the violin all day while accompanied only by their memories, giant chateaus full of satan-worshipping yuppies… As an American who has barely even traveled out of my own state, this is pretty much how I imagine Europe all the time. Yes, the movie has the occasional murder and arson and a poor old woman strangled in her motorized wheelchair… but that paneling! Those wall sconces! The old man’s house in… wherever he was playing the violin. DAMN.
Along for the ride is a mystery woman about whom everything is inexplicable: her kung fu skills, her suddenly having a moped, her huge eyebrows, her wearing my wardrobe from high school, her name… seriously she has no name. She’s called ‘The Girl’ in the credits. And there’s a reason why, as you’ll see, unless you don’t watch the movie, in which case *SPOILER* she’s actually a fallen angel, perhaps THE Fallen Angel, trying to help Corso for some reason.
She’s in about half the movie, but the only scene anyone seems to want to put up on the ‘net isn’t worksafe.
I even found myself loving Corso’s bag in the film, and after a short Google, discovered that it has its own following! It’s called a musette ml 35, and was a French military bag from WW2.
After first watching the film, I was kind of like ‘What the hell was that?’ I suppose I was expecting another The Prophecy or Lord of Illusions, so the subtlety and reserve in Ninth Gate was lost on me. It’s in the mold of those 70’s horror films where less was more: Rosemary’s Baby (which Polanski also directed), The Sentinel, The Omen. The only thing supernatural I remembered about it was a moment where the Girl seems to be able to glide when she jumps down from a balcony, and a demonic shimmer to her eyes. And of course the ending, but that felt sort of tacked on. I definitely enjoyed it more now, but I don’t think it’s a great movie. It builds great atmosphere and is beautifully shot, and has some really attractive people doing things in beautiful locations, so I think it’s worth the time. I loved the clothes and the cars and such, so it succeeds on that level at least. But if you do not wish to visit a world created by such a controversial figure as Polanski, give it a miss. You won’t be missing too much.
The Ninth Gate is available on Instant Watch.