"The Ninth Gate"

Roman Polanski talks about how his love affair with the printed word informed his supernatural, bibliophilic thriller.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published August 4, 2000 8:24PM (EDT)

"The Ninth Gate"
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin
Artisan; widescreen (2.35:1) and full-screen (1.33:1)
Extras: Director commentary, publicity featurette, trailers

In the running commentary to the DVD release of his tongue-in-cheek supernatural thriller "The Ninth Gate," Roman Polanski points out that in the age of computers, books are more important to him than ever. That explains why his movie is such great fun for book lovers: "The Ninth Gate" is tailor-made for people who can't resist picking up an attractive volume, who enjoy the simple weight and heft of books, who know how to appreciate a nice binding, who take pleasure in assessing the weight and texture of the paper. Of course, it's good to be able to appreciate the text within, too. But one of the sly jokes of "The Ninth Gate" is that most book lovers, at least to an extent, succumb to the idea of books as totems, items that hold vast powers as physical objects.

Here, that certainly applies to rare-book kook Boris Balkan (played with delectable creepiness by Frank Langella). He hires Dean Corso (the terrifically deadpan Johnny Depp), a wily rare-book scavenger who turns big profits by hunting down scarce volumes, to locate the last few existing copies of a 17th-century book that holds the secrets for conjuring almighty Satan himself.

Along the way, Corso encounters a devilish beauty clad in jeans and sneakers; an orgiastic ceremony complete with candles, chanting and cheesy black robes; and a steely-eyed, tart-tongued baroness in a wheelchair. (Did I forget to mention that somewhere along the way in her Satan-worshipping career she's managed to lose part of one arm?) The film is based on Arturo Pirez-Reverte's novel "The Club Dumas"; Polanski revels in the story's black humor but never pushes it laughably over the top. And cinematographer Darius Khondji creates a gorgeous miniature universe of Gothic bookishness: At one point he practically makes love to a stack of leather-bound beauties by showing them bathed in a haze of dust motes in sunlight.

Polanski's commentary is engaging, but you have to adjust to his manner of speech, which is so halting and leisurely that it's almost narcotic. But his love for his work -- and his mischievous yet oddly somber sense of fun -- definitely come through. He discloses one revelatory detail that shouldn't be missed. Scene by scene, Polanski points out that he frequently uses sets instead of real locations. It's easier to shoot a street scene on a set, he explains, than it is to block off a real street and inconvenience passersby. Yet in one scene Corso presents an exceedingly rare and valuable four-volume 1780 edition of "Don Quixote" to a book dealer -- and Polanski points out that the books used are the real thing, kindly loaned to him by a collector. It's a lovely metaphor for the way the fantasy world of books -- and of movies -- is nonetheless grounded in its own kind of reality.

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Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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Movies Roman Polanski