In Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, an unscrupulous New York book dealer with a reputation for tracking down the rarities and exotica his posh clients crave. As Dean says, a bad reputation is good for business, but, job description aside, he’d probably be bad anyway. He enjoys infiltrating the world of rare books with his scamp’s manners; it’s a form of one-upmanship.
The best thing about The Ninth Gate is that it locates a relatively new setting for old claptrap. Dean is a species of detective, and in the course of his quest, we’re treated to a rogues’ gallery of effete desiccation: Many of the book collectors on view have a sallow countenance, the look of faded parchment. The film should be much better than it is; as is often the case with Polanski’s work over the past several decades, the build-up and the atmosphere are more compelling than the end result. But cold craftsmanship is better than no craftsmanship, and parts of The Ninth Gate have a caustic, cackling humor.
Polanski is the kind of director who keeps one eye on his audience at all times. Every camera move and every cut is conceived in cat-and-mouse terms. Like Dean Corso, Polanski enjoys one-upping those who depend on him. The undercurrent of sadism in his films comes not just from the recurring queasy subject matter but also from the ways in which we are made to feel like puppets on a string. The story goes that Polanski, against the objections of his producers, once set up a shot for Rosemary’s Baby in which a half-opened door partially blocked our view into an adjoining room; he argued that the shot was designed so that when the film was finally projected in theaters, everybody would be craning their necks in unison to see around the door, and, of course, that’s exactly what happened. Sometimes this sort of tweaking can be pleasurable. Hitchcock, for example, turned audience manipulation into sport, and we enjoyed being fooled with: It meant that Hitchcock thought enough of our smarts to try confounding them. His relationship with his audience is based on an essentially English sense of wryness. Even in the savagery of Psycho there is a sense in which he is toying with our frights; there is wit in the blood. The black joke in that film is how it overturns our conventional scary-movie expectations and becomes truly gruesome.
Polanski’s horrors come out of a different tradition from Hitchcock’s, much more Eastern European and Jacobean. His gamesmanship is closer to blood sport. Like Hitchcock’s, Polanski’s audience-response maneuvers have sometimes been interpreted as a sign of artistry when they’re often just high-end gimmickry. But, also like Hitchcock, Polanski is a special case. His best movies have a way of blurring the line – which is mostly artificial anyway – between the manipulations of a fright-master and those of an artist. The dread that pervades, say, Chinatown, or even the uneven Frantic, which is almost intolerably anxiety-provoking for its first, seemingly uneventful half-hour or so, goes beyond pulpishness into richer realms of unease. These films are saying that while the stories we are watching are unhinged and full of fear, the real world in which they were created is even more so. (Inevitably, if unfairly, we regard Polanski’s harrowing life and his movies as all of a piece.) The existential dislocation is total. Movies are not just movies; they’re emissaries of a deeper disorder.
In The Ninth Gate, books are agents of disorder, too. Dean is hired by the publisher Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to seek out in Spain, Portugal, and France the two surviving editions, besides his own, of a seventeenth-century tome illustrated with nine engravings that, combined with the text, are said to summon the Devil. Balkan’s climate-controlled library consists entirely of books about Satan, and the man himself seems climate-controlled: Langella looks as if he were preserved in formaldehyde. His oily, orotund pronouncements – “I’m entering uncharted territory!” – are a shade too regal for camp, but his performance, like most of the movie, isn’t to be taken entirely seriously. The comic effects are uneven, perhaps because Polanski is too much the martinet to achieve the florid levity he’s often reaching for here. In what amounts to violent slapstick, Dean evades torchings and bashings and gougings; he steals his way into a Satanic-cult gathering at a mansion in the French countryside that recalls the scene in Eyes Wide Shut in which a masked Tom Cruise infiltrates a mansion of incanting orgiasts. (I do not intend this comparison as a compliment.) Polanski is torn between making a horror film and a horror spoof, in the end succeeding at neither.
And yet there are brilliant, unsettling moments throughout. As Dean tracks down the editions, he crosses paths with a magnificent array of grotesques, including a wheelchair-bound baroness (Barbara Jefford) and a French-born widow (Lena Olin) who slithers sultrily and then claws at him when she doesn’t get what she wants. The women in this movie all come on like she-devils, none more so than the blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner) who mysteriously turns up as Dean’s guardian angel. Seigner looks like a more brutish version of Dominique Sanda, and her eroticism is hellfire. She wears flames the way some women wear Dior.
When he was no longer able to make movies in Hollywood, Polanski lost the armature of the studio system that reined in his excesses. The commercialism of the Hollywood approach had a salutary effect on Polanski’s artistry that is rare for émigré directors. Away making movies in Europe since Chinatown, he has become a director of bits and pieces (with the exception of Tess), and while the oddments are still the work of a distinctive talent, the films come across less as fully realized achievements than as squanderings. That certainly holds true for The Ninth Gate, a movie with some fire and lots more ash.