Review: The Ninth Gate
The Ninth Gate (1999), one of Roman Polanski’s lesser-celebrated films, tells the story of Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a “book detective” deputed to hunt down and examine a 17th century adaptation of a work believed to have been authored by the devil. The film follows the book dealer as he navigates his way through a world of eerie old mansions, celebrated private collections and secret transnational clubs of devil-worshipping millionaires.
There are three authentic copies of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows circulating among collectors in Portugal, France and the United States. Bibliophile and Satan-enthusiast Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) – the owner of one of the copies – however, is convinced that only one of them is authentic. He hires Corso to travel to Europe, trace down the other two copies and compare all three. Among book dealers, Corso has a reputation for being Machiavellian and “thoroughly unscrupulous.” This, according to Balkan, qualifies him for the task at hand, as, he explains, “Nothing is more reliable than a man whose loyalty can be bought for hard cash.”
While in Portugal, Corso is warned by Victor Fargas, (Jack Taylor), the owner of the second copy, that “Some books are dangerous; not to be opened with impunity.” It isn’t long before Corso begins to realise that he may have taken on more than he had bargained for. A string of brutal murders confirms that he is not alone in his search for the copies of The Nine Gates. And he senses that he is being followed. An elusive woman with hypnotic green eyes – played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner – makes unexpected appearances, like an apparition, throughout the course of his travels, posing as a guardian angel of sorts.
During his investigations, Corso discovers that there are discrepancies in the lithographs of all three copies of the book – a detail that had escaped the foremost experts on the subject, including Balkan, Fargas and Baroness Kessler, the owner of the third copy, who has dedicated her entire life and library to the study of Lucifer. This discovery leads Corso to conclude that all three copies are genuine, and that the illustrations collectively form a “satanic riddle” – a theory that impresses both Balkan and Kessler.
The faces depicted in some of the lithographs, interestingly, resemble some of the characters Corso encounters in his adventures, including the guardian angel who seems to be protecting him for reasons unknown. Another familiar face in the illustrations is that of a pair of twins who run an old, run-down book shop in Portugal and whom Corso consults during his investigation. They tell him that “Old books have their own destiny and their own life.”
Set mostly in the exotic environs of old Europe, The Ninth Gate has the characteristics of a classical mystery and the appeal of an Agatha Christie film-depiction. Similarly, fans of the Herge comic, The Adventures of Tintin, may find that the plot, structure and atmosphere of the film reminds them of the old comic book series. The mystery genre, at times, overlaps the surreal in its depiction of Corso’s symbolic and haunting journey.
The writer is an Assistant Editor at Newsline (www.alibhutto.com)
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