Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ninth Gate


Things are not progressing as smoothly on my new kabuki musical spectacular adaptation of The Last Seduction as I had hoped. Tim Burton, our director, and I are not seeing eye to eye on the development of my character, Bridget. I view her as a tragically misunderstood girl who life forces into choosing the wrong men. Tim thinks she's some sort of manipulative harridan; I'm sorry, but Vicki Lester's core fans will not tolerate me in an unsympathetic role so I will continue to give her the sweetness and light that she deserves, just like that darling Linda Fiorentino did in the film.

We have had to jettison the Taliban ballet from the second act. With the changing world political situation, we feel that Afghanistan may simply be passé by the time the show opens this next spring. Instead, Tim has an exciting new idea for a dream ballet in which the roots of Bridget's unhappiness are explored; he sees this as an indictment of American consumerist culture through the prism of eating disorders. The piece is to be entitled Crouching Twinkie, Hidden Ding Dong and is a fantasy on Asian themes in which I dance in the treetops, over the roofs of a palace and, in a grand finale, launch myself off of a mountain; a chorale sings in the background on the tragedy of bulimia throughout.

After a busy day of rehearsal in the bungee cords, I was just exhausted and sank down in the home theater to enjoy a new arrival from Netflix. Tonight's film was The Ninth Gate, a supernatural thriller from Roman Polanski starring the versatile Johnny Depp. Polanski, once one of Hollywood's most important directors, now lives and works in Europe following a rather sordid run in with the law involving an underage girl. Many years ago, he created the film version of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby which still remains the classic satanic thriller by which all others are remembered. Polanski returns to this familiar territory in this film.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an unscrupulous dealer in rare books. As we meet him, he thinks nothing of fleecing an enfeebled old man and his family out of a rare edition of Don Quixote. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to investigate a rare volume of satanic lore which he recently purchased from another American collector, who promptly committed suicide. There are three surviving copies of the book of the Nine Gates, supposedly written by a Venetian in 1666 with the personal assistance of Lucifer. Balkan is sure that the book can be used to communicate with the devil and gain great power but he wants to know if his is the genuine copy or if either of the others might be. So, Corso heads off to Europe, pursued by the villainous Liana Telfer (Lena Olin), whose husband was the original owner, and possibly by Balkan himself. Corso gains access to the other two copies and notices a few interesting things about them, before becoming ensnared in a cult of devil worshipers and teaming up with a mysterious girl (Emannuelle Seigner) who is obviously not quite of this earth.

The film is beautifully shot in earth tones, making maximal use of its locations (predominantly wealthy European homes, hotels and libraries). Polanski remains a master at suggesting hidden evil in mundane details and the proceedings are nicely paced. A feeling of dread is maintained with the unexplainable just out of reach. When things slow down, there's just a bit of stylish violence or grotesquerie to perk things up again. I was thoroughly prepared to call the film a success until the last five minutes. The ending is such a ridiculous mess that Polanski negates everything he has spent the previous two hours building. There is a sequence in which the villain gets a conventional comeuppance. This then leads into a bizarre sex scene, a lack of explanation of motivations of a central character and a supernatural ending which does nothing to conclude or explain the film's themes.

Johnny Depp remains one of the finest actors of his generation. His Corso is unpleasant, yet we feel sympathy for him and we want to go with him on his journey as he unlocks the secrets of the nine gates. This is not an easy feat to achieve. The rest of the cast is not as strong. Lena Olin and Frank Langella, both fine actors, are vying for top honors in Victorian melodramatics, snarling and hissing their way through their scenes a la Snidely Whiplash. Emannuelle Seigner, as the enigmatic and nameless girl, has a pivotal role. As the writing and directing is confused, especially at the end, it's hard to know what to make of her other than the fact that she has lovely eyes. A stronger actress might have made the part work better but, as she's Mrs. Roman Polanski, she was automatically in.

The DVD has the film in widescreen and Dolby 5.1. Picture and sound are acceptable but nothing special. There is a commentary track with Polanski discussing the film. I gave up when even he couldn't explain the ending. There is also a two minute 'behind the scenes' featurette obviously made for Entertainment Tonight or Cable News.

It's not a bad film, but do yourself a favor. As soon as the villain is dispatched, turn it off and head out to dinner.

Antique engravings. Hanged book collector. Hanged book dealer. Serpent tattoo. Pentacle necklaces. Burning library. Dilapidated chateau. Gratuitous platinum blond hair don't. Wheelchair strangulation. Flooded Rolls Royce. Gratuitous Ferrari chase.

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