THE SET-UP: Maverick, mercenary rare book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), armed with a bad reputation and a sleek goatee, is hired by a sinister, mercenary rare book collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to authenticate an ancient tome one that he just bought from a millionaire who hanged himself, and whose widow (Lena Olin) is not happy about the sale. Nothing special about this luxe fetish item, except that it could perhaps have the power to summon the devil in person. Corso flies off to Portugal and then Paris in search of two other volumes, and the bodies pile up. He’s shadowed by an enigmatic young blond (Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of director Roman Polanski) who is mysterious about her employer, as well as a few of her supernatural powers. Is Corso’s life turning into a living hell or just Hell?
RAY: Polanski, renowned for deftly macabre storytelling, from Rosemary’s Baby to Repulsion to Chinatown, wants us to twitch with dread from his spooky, artful moodiness. But like the late Stanley Kubrick, he’s made an absurd, frisky movie that might engage a 1960s audience with their patient rhythms, manipulative story turns and sadistic cross-currents. I don’t know how the average moviegoer will take this. His last film, the wonderfully kinky sex thriller Bitter Moon was as misunderstood as this one is going to be.
KAREN: What do you mean “misunderstood”? The story is simple enough you know, the usual Lucifer worship although I was seduced from the get-go; this writer hasn’t seen many films lately that start with the sound of a pen scratching on paper. Nor do we get many whose stars wear nerdy specs and run around Europe in search of dusty old books. And I don’t mean the kind you’d be reading in the bathroom.
RAY: Not enough illustrations for a casual bathroom read? Even though it looks great, lit in the plush colors of the flaxen, satiny pages and buttery leathers covers, The Ninth Gate turns out to be a little more neurotica than erotica.
KAREN: Satiny? Buttery? Sounds like you found plenty of material in there.
RAY: Personally, I’d prefer the smell of a roomful of cheap incense than fire and brimstone while I’m getting in a night’s reading.
KAREN: Perhaps the fumes did Roman in. For the first half, Polanski builds up this wonderfully creepy mood of discomfiture, suffused with voluptuous dread, and then doesn’t know what to do with his succubae when they finally turn up. With sexy goddesses like Lena Olin and Emmanuelle Seigner as well as all the Eurotrash funk and the purple-prose talk of Satan we’ve been offered, you’d hope they’d at least send the Deppster up in flames.
RAY: Man, I don’t know about you, but watching Lena Olin stride across a carpet in a full-length shot in crisp, fitted, black pants and a form-fitting, half-unbuttoned, black silk blouse beneath her chic, cherry mouth that’s a sex scene to me. Her long, finely lined neck, the way she swishes all that volume of shoulder-length brunette hair. Then there’s that post-coital dogfight she and Depp have. That’s a pretty kicky hatefuck, if a little too short for my tastes. Why have I never gotten bitten like that, dammit? And remember the great line from the Parisian baroness in the wheelchair, one of the owners of the three copies of the all-important ancient book? I enjoyed hearing her munch out in those Germanic accented syl-la-bles, “My orgy days are over.”
KAREN: When I heard that, I hoped for some kinked-out multigenerational sex on wheels maybe the baroness would break out her riding crop and leave a tidy scar right near Lena’s bite mark but no, she had to get strangled and ruin all the fun. She was a plot device, no more.
RAY: The promised orgy that pops up at the end was probably the biggest disappointment to my arty little heart.
KAREN: Quel dommage, but what’s the point of an orgy with no sex . . . not even a perfunctory pounce. I certainly don’t expect a PG scene like that from the man who showed the Devil himself ravishing poor Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Although I could’ve done without the sight of the very saggy naked bosoms of some of those devil worshippers.
RAY: The orgy here is a peculiar rerun of the notorious scene in Eyes Wide Shut: what is it with these guys in their mid-sixties or so and ritualized incantations and spooky castles? I think literate smut has gone a little beyond all that 1960s paperback stuff, all the bus station pulps that hacks churned out, wanting to do a little Story of O action while watering down De Sade.
KAREN: De Sade is so last season; I want Dior. Those monks’ robes at the orgy! Shiny, tacky polyester. Really, you’d think that a devil worshipper at a glam chateau in France would have a bit more finesse.
RAY: Sometimes it seems like Polanski is telling a joke that only he’s in on.
KAREN: Or that he and Depp are in on. At first, he’s snarky and feisty and selfish; then, as the plot becomes cumbersome and the supernatural elements turn to contrivance, he primarily looks lost. He turns curiously passive. The high point of his acting is how well and how many ways he can blow smoke out his winsome nostrils.
RAY: His hair, though, is uncommonly talented. It’s more multifaceted and multitousled than in any of the movies he’s done with Tim Burton. And I have to salute any fellow Kentucky boy with brimming brown eyes and chiseled cheekbones.
KAREN: You flatter yourself. Every minute, it looks like Corso is going to get a beating or burning
RAY: not at the stake.
KAREN: in my dreams. Despite his unconvincing graying temples, Depp still emotes like a teenager here.
RAY: He’s an adult masochist, though: When’s the last time you saw a movie that didn’t star Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner where the male lead was so beat-down, put-upon, bloodied and ruffled?
KAREN: But he keeps bouncing back like poppin’-fresh dough. Depp doesn’t have the undercurrent of naughtiness that would indicate that he’d like a little erotic conflagration.
RAY: I love it when gilded trickster Seigner has the bloodied lip and wipes the red stuff all over Depp’s forehead and fine, aquiline nose.
KAREN: Oh Ray, listen to yourself. That’s a fetish, not a universal sexual desire. For me, there’s a sad lack of sex and I don’t mean just the sex act, but an all-over air of erotic tension which is surprising, considering Polanski’s one of the more certifiable twisted directors out there. For example, the “bite” scene you like so much, when the scheming black widow pounces Depp, merely looks like he’s been scared out of his hutch, howling like a little bunny when she draws blood. And in another, when nubile Emmanuelle writhes atop him in ecstasy before a burning castle, her eyes aglow, all he can do is look dumbfounded.
RAY: And she looks like the green-eyed Devil herself. Satan get thee behind me, I like your breasts. I wonder if I were a director whether I’d treasure putting my wife through those kind of paces. That’s one fiery, sweaty, naked, turbocharged sex scene at the end.
KAREN: Well, she’s taken her clothes off in everything he’s directed her in. Exhibitionists of a feather film together.
RAY: Movies nowadays tell you the world is all right and pat you on your head; Polanski tells you the world is stranger than you know while he’s rummaging around in your dreams.
KAREN: Yeah, if your dreams include nightmares of “Go Straight to Hell: Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.” Which is what the audience seemed to be saying when my screening ended. What, all that chain-smoking, Eurotrashy mumbo-jumbo and we get the ending we got?
RAY: Thank Beelzebub I saw it with a poet; any other woman I know would have held a grudge for weeks. Audiences will soak in mood at the movies, but at the end they want the big bang: two hours of foreplay, and most everyone wants a killer orgasm. This was two hours of bony, urgent fingertips tease and tease and tease and then walk away. Dirty old man!
KAREN: See you in Hell, babe!
RAY: Save me an aisle seat.