Roman Polanski‘s irrelevance has seemed a sure thing for some time now. Chinatown, after all, was released 26 years ago, and The Tenant, his last film fully sustained in both tone and what might be called authorial purpose, is 24 years old. Given the Chinatown legend, it seems perverse that Polanski’s own standing has diminished so precipitously, as if directing one — or two or three — critically lauded films weren‘t enough for one lifetime. Not that Polanski has since done himself many favors. First there was Tess, nearly moribund with significance, then Pirates. There’s nearly as little to say about Frantic, a Hollywood hack job that, outside of its creepy correspondence to the director‘s own biography — a husband discovers his wife has gone missing, but, in the world of fiction, is allowed to save her — shares almost nothing with early Polanski triumphs such as Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac. All that Frantic confirmed was that, even when saddled with Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski, much like Brian De Palma, would cling to the lessons he had absorbed from Hitchcock no matter how corrupt the material. But while De Palma’s work is inseparable from its maker‘s sadism, it’s masochism that perfumes each of Polanski‘s films, which is part of what makes them, somehow, eminently more bearable no matter the corruption.
Polanski’s next film, the delirious Bitter Moon, released in 1992, seemed some sort of return to form, but then word leaked out that the director had intended this psychosexual fever dream as a drama, not a comedy, and all bets were off. (Death and the Maiden followed, a fine adaptation of Ariel Dorfman‘s uninteresting play.) Now there is The Ninth Gate, a nonsensical, generally entertaining trifle whose plot augurs its triviality even as the film’s credits insist on something more weighty — the script is from a book by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte, the cinematographer is Darius Khondji and the production designer is Dean Tavoularis. And then there‘s Johnny Depp, shifting between incredulity and indifference behind wire-rimmed glasses, playing an unscrupulous dealer of rare books named Dean Corso. A New Yorker who smokes like a Parisian and drinks like a fish, Corso is hired by publishing tycoon Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to track down two copies of a 17th-century book called The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. Balkan, who owns the third and presumed only other extant edition, wants to authenticate the other volumes for reasons that are suggested both by the velvety insinuation in Langella’s phrasing and by his character‘s library of books on all things satanic.
The Ninth Gate is Euro-kitsch of the highest order, which doesn’t mean it‘s necessarily bad, just unnecessary. As to be expected, Seigner — Bitter Moon co-star and resident exotic dancer, as well as the director’s wife — has a part to play, which includes shedding her clothes and riding Depp like a broncobuster. Seigner, who has a gift for telegraphing blankness and an unsettling capacity for seeming at once feline and bovine, plays a mystery woman with a habit of showing up in the nick of time. Lena Olin, who presumably has the requisite nude scene written into every film contract, borrows liberally from her man-eating role in Peter Medak‘s Romeo Is Bleeding as a devil-worshiper with a tattoo on her ass. When he’s not playing cat-and-mouse with these two, Corso searches for the books in one European locale after another, a pleasant visual distraction that probably explains why Polanski became interested in the film in the first place. The scenery is beautiful, and beautifully shot by Khondji, and while the whole thing is very silly, there‘s an ease in the filmmaking and a melancholic undertow that also make it insistently watchable. Best of all, though, there’s Barbara Jefford, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company who gets to whir around in a wheelchair and wave a stump at Corso as she pronounces, in an inscrutable Euro-accent, “Get out, before it‘s too late!” It goes without saying that, by then, it already is.