I think certain big directors reach a point in their career where they examine a script not for what they can bring to it, but for how many interesting European locations with luxury hotels they can stay in while making it. I think it's a sort of semi-retirement for them to occasionally half-direct movies. Not every director is like Steven Spielberg, prowling the set in tennis shoes looking for angles, laying down in the mud to line up a shot just right, making detailed storyboards, and putting on a wetsuit so they can jump right in to direct the shark victim. Some are like Rascally Roman Polanski - they ask only that it be shot either close to home or somewhere they'd like to go on vacation, and that a plum part be set aside for their exotic European wife.
Ninth Gate is Polanski's latest vacation film. It takes place in a variety of charming European* locations, and features an INORDINATE amount of Johnny Depp sitting in charming cafes having a meal, and smoking, smoking, smoking, ever smoking. One can imagine Polanski, his exotic wife Emmanuelle Seigner - who after all is only in a fraction of the film and had a lot of down time to sight-see with husband Roman - and Depp treating themselves to nice meals with expensive wine as the technicians set up another of Polanski's simplistic shots for this film.
And perhaps they had time to treat themselves not only to a meal but a good steam and a stroll along the channel as the technicians set up the two shots where Seigner was actually on wires for her "flying" scenes. I can only assume she was flying; the film offers no clue about this. My bet is, she was meant to be an angel, although she exhibits some awfully un-angel like behavior in the last part of the movie.
Maybe she was one of the Lucifer's angels. Or maybe she was from Krypton. The point is, I donít think even Polanski knew. I think he wanted to have some extra time after the lunch break that day to maybe hit a museum, so he gave the technicians something to keep them busy.
Polanski makes films so rarely that it seems he would pick projects that he had a great passion for. But I get the impression that he doesn't care much about this one at all, or at least not all of it. He seems to have been mildly inspired by some scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, a mildly interesting novel about the hunt for a satanic tome, and of course the latest Fodor's travel guide.
That said, though, Ninth Gate was still, amazingly, a mildly pleasant distraction, and not just because I went to see it to get away from the Oscars that night. Polanski creates a slow suspense in the sleuthing portion of the film, helped along of course by a magnetic Johnny Depp. He creates a series of shots showing a murdered old woman in an out-of-control electric wheelchair that would have haunted me to adulthood if I'd seen them as a kid.
And from the handling of the special visuals in the film, he seems to have a sort of quaint misunderstanding about computers and digital effects, as if he isnít quite sure about these new-fangled computers. He seems to be using high-tech equipment to recreate some decidedly low-tech effects - like composite images set dead-center of the frame for simplicity, or a "back projection" effect used while Depp and Seigner are on a motorcycle -† which is sort of charming in a missing-the-point kind of way. He probably has access to a computer that could render dinosaurs and devils that would make us scream out loud in fright, but he still has his wife hold REALLY REALLY STILL while they digitally change the color of her eyes from green to brown, as if he imagined that some technician would be painting her irises by hand on each frame of the film. (That was another effect without purpose or explanation, by the way.)
There's enough here - and Depp is interesting enough - that it makes you wish they'd salvaged a solid through-line from the script. To give you a hint at the deep dissatisfaction the story leaves you with, Polanski introduces a book supposed to have been written by Satan himself, supposedly with the power to summon the Dark One, and yet he never does allow Satan to be summoned. He also mentions a secret Satanic cult that supposedly engages in dark orgies, and we actually see a meeting of the cult, but he never really does much with that, either. Please don't tell me a book can summon Lucifer or even SAY the word "orgy" and then not show it to me.
And the ending is... inexplicable. I don't have to have a resolution spelled out to me in detail, but this one left even me open-jawed. It went beyond enigmatic, into simply INCOMPLETE. It was as if Polanski simply lost interest in a story he was telling and left the room. Did Depp raise the devil? If so, why? Why didnít it work for Frank Langella? What happened to him? What WAS Seigner's character? Angel? Devil? I think the answer is clear: Neither. She was the Director's Wife, and this was his latest vacation movie. I recommend that if you see this film, you choose to
See this film when it shows on cable.
*Although there in Polanski's case there is a very good reason that he chooses to shoot his films in European locations, one which I will not go into here.
© 2000 Absurd Pamphlet Press