The Ninth Gate

(1999) *** 1/2 R
134 min. Artisan Entertainment. Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, James Russo, Jack Taylor.

/content/films/3537/1.jpgAs implied by a title sequence that takes us through doors of perception, The Ninth Gate is an insinuating trip into devilish darkness. Roman Polanski's sorely underrated occult mystery elegantly streamlines Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel El Club Dumas and provides more evidence of Johnny Depp's desire to challenge himself in his choices of director and material.

Depp plays Dean Corso, a rare-book appraiser (or, as one character puts it, a "book detective") whose laid-back mien belies his parasitical greed. Ruthless and cynical, he's just the man wealthy New York collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) needs to get past the defenses of two other collectors and examine their copies of an ultra-rare book: "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows." Dating to 1666 Venice, the book said to be co-written by Satan has only three extant copies, one held by Balkan. To confirm the authenticity of his copy, Balkan entrusts it to Corso and instructs him to make a detailed comparison of its contents and that of the copies held in Portugal and France. Naturally, Corso is handsomely paid for the job, but he quickly learns no amount of money can compensate him for the danger he faces.

/content/films/3537/2.jpgFor starters, one Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) claims Balkan's copy of the book is rightfully hers, and was only sold to Balkan by her husband out of spite, just before he committed suicide. Telfer, too, will stop at nothing, including seducing Corso. With Telfer on his trail and indications that Balkan may also be shadowing him, Corso remains on edge. He's unsettled by the "horrific" woodcut engravings in the book that are his main point of comparison, and everyone he meets speaks elliptically about the book's power. The Ceniza brothers (José López Rodero), twin book restorers, imply that Satan truly played a hand in the book's authorship. "All books have a destiny of their own," says one, the other adding, "And a life of their own." In Sintra, "Nine Gates" owner Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) warns Corso, "Some books are dangerous. Not to be opened with impunity."

Soon bodies start piling up, and Corso discovers someone else following him: a green-eyed woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who guards her identity but proves herself by protecting him from harm. Without even knowing why himself, and even after completing his work for Balkan, Corso presses on beyond the point of reason. His own obsession with the book and its reputed power leads him to infiltrate the annual meeting of a cult of orgiastic devil-worshippers where, well, all hell breaks loose. The greatest pleasure of The Ninth Gate is its subtlety. This isn't Stigmata or End of Days or Lost Souls or The Order or Bless the Child or The Seventh Sign. It's not even Rosemary's Baby, much to many critics' chagrin. Polanski allows the story to worm its way into the consciousness, and he has a great ally in Depp, who plays his unique anti-hero close to the vest.

Polanski is a master of mood, and he gets rich tones from his locations (particularly those in old-world Europe), the photography of Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en), and the music of Wojciech Kilar. The acting is terrific all around, including a sharp turn by Barbara Jefford as the Baroness Kessler. And Polanski's patient pacing is a joy, so wisely counter-cultural to Hollywood's idea of what a supernatural thriller should be. A moment arrives when the impossible occurs, but Polanski treats it with the same matter-of-fact delicacy as any other. To anyone paying attention, The Ninth Gate is witty, unnerving, and finally haunting.

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Aspect ratios: 2.39:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 8/11/2009

Distributor: Lionsgate

The heavily diffused photography of The Ninth Gate can give it a soft and hazy appearance at times. But Lionsgate does a solid job of transferring the film to hi-def Blu-ray. Certainly this film has never looked better on home video. Get past the worrying opening (with its noticeable dust and dirt), and you'll find that detail can be quite good, and artifacting is not a problem. Contrast, black level, and skin tones are inconsistent, with DNR sometimes giving the characters that slightly waxy look. It would've been nice if Lionsgate went back to the source and built a better hi-def master than this one, but considering the film's lukewarm popularity, I'll take this clear upgrade. Sound gets a marked improvement, in a definitive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix that captures the nuances of Polanski's soundscape and Kilar's score.

Happily, Lionsgate has preserved nearly all of the DVD extras (no isolated score or production notes, unfortunately). The primary bonus feature is a fascinating commentary with director Roman Polanski. Wisely, Polanski avoids parsing the film's more ambiguous moments, but he does point out some interesting details he's hidden in plain sight, and provides a sort of master class in filmmaking, discussing the writing, casting, photography, and editing.

The original EPK "Featurette" (2:02, SD) is frustratingly short, though it includes a few interesting comments froma Polanski, Johnny Depp, and Langella.

A nifty Storyboard Selections feature invites comparisons of script pages to Polanski's sketched storyboards.

The very cool Gallery of Satanic Drawings presents the nine engravings seen in the film, and their variations, with textual detail.

The Original Theatrical Trailers section includes the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:49, SD) and "Fire Gates" (:43, SD) trailer.

If you've never seen The Ninth Gate, you owe it to yourself to check it out, and if you're a longtime fan, I recommend the hi-def upgrade.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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