The Ninth Gate

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The Ninth Gate

For years, it's been critical commonplace to sum up a film by describing it as a combination of two other films, a trend exacerbated by the tendency of studios to continue turning out projects that simply throw the best parts of two movies together. But rarely has a director made a movie that invited comparison to two of his own films as readily as Roman Polanski has with The Ninth Gate: It's Rosemary's Baby meets Chinatown any way you look at it. Adapted from novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte's popular supernatural thriller The Club Dumas, Gate stars Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous rare-book dealer contracted by Frank Langella, a collector of satanic literature, for a mysterious task. Unsure of the authenticity of a 17th-century manuscript reputed to have the ability to summon the devil, possibly because he can't make it work, Langella dispatches Depp to Europe to compare his copy to the only other two known to exist. But once there, he finds himself trailed by a mysterious woman (Polanski spouse Emmanuelle Seigner, whose acting skills remain noticeably unsharpened) and the forces of another interested party, a femme fatale played by Lena Olin. With the assurance of a pro, Polanski teasingly draws out the suspense, moving Depp from one copy of the book to another, and then back again, as if ashamed of where the story ultimately had to go. Of course, he should be. A patently ridiculous bit of hokum, a diabolical shaggy-dog story chasing its own tail, The Ninth Gate has nowhere to go but down. Polanski, however, knows this well and wisely refuses to let the film take itself seriously while just as wisely avoiding self-parody. For all its unabashed trashiness, The Ninth Gate remains an expertly crafted, eerily effective bit of satanic noir from its start to somewhere just before its finish, helped at every turn by Depp, who seems even more aware of Gate's inherent absurdity than Polanski himself. It may be the sort of film enjoyed against your better judgement, but The Ninth Gate is hard not to enjoy anyway.