Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Ninth Gate (1999)

I seem to have watched a ragbag of films over the last few days and, as so often is the case, I have little inspiration to dissect most of them. (Just as well that I don't earn my living as a film reviewer). The strangest of the lot was a peculiarity from 2003 called "Tiptoes", a movie primarily about 'little people' and society's treatment of them. However I struggle to understand what possessed Gary Oldman to take the role of a hunchbacked dwarf (believably rendered through CGI), twin brother to a full-sized Matthew McConaughey. The latter has inpregnated girlfriend Kate Beckinsale and the genetic odds are that she too will deliver a dwarf, like the majority of the boys' family. I understand that Oldman's interest was instrumental in getting the movie made, but his motives remain something of a mystery to me.

I had planned to write about a French flick from 1974 with the title translated as "Let Joy Reign Supreme", the second outing from respected director Betrand Tavernier. Set in 1719 we follow the escapades of the Regent to the underage Louis XV played by Philippe Noiret (again) and an atheistic abbe who wants to become an Archbishop, played by the never-dull Jean Rochefort. However the film was so lumbered by chunks of French history mixed with the lascivious, decadent behaviour of the court, that it seemed endless (and dare I say slightly boring). Obviously a big production with a host of extras, elaborate costumes, lovingly photographed scenery, and even music written originally by Noiret's Regent, but I found it heavy going.

So by default I shall say a few words about Roman Polanski's "Ninth Gate", my first re-view in about ten years. I have no intention of discussing Polanski's morals and fugitive status, but I will say that he has made some brilliant films throughout his career; he has also made a few clinkers. This one is not exactly in the middle, veering more to the interesting end of the spectrum, but fatally weakened by a muddled and hasty ending. Based on a Spanish novel, "El Club Dumas", the tale has Johnny Depp playing a New York book-dealer and bibliophile called Dean Corso. He is employed by megalomaniac collector Frank Langella to establish if the satanic volume he has just acquired from a man who subsequently commiited suicide is the real McCoy. While Langella firmly believes that his copy is genuine, he wants Corso to compare it to the two other remaining copies. During the first half of the movie, there is a definite sinister air of mystery as Corso unearths certain differences among the three volumes and as the other two owners meet violent ends with the engravings torn from their copies. Meanwhile, Langella's copy which he has entrusted to Corso is stolen by Lena Olin, the suicide's widow, who claims the book was hers and not her huband's to sell. Both Langella and Olin are obviously well into black magic and hope to use the book's mysteries to raise the Devil.

Like many moviegoers I have a lot of time for Depp who has created a variety of fascinating characters in the last twenty years and whose 'duds' are few and far between. At the moment only the feeble "Secret Window" (2004) springs to mind. I also have really been a Langella fan since I first noticed him as the louche and rather beautiful lover in "Diary of Mad Housewife" (1970). As he has aged he has grown gracefully into his roles and normally leaves a strong impression. However in this film, he veers dangerously into over-the-top histrionics which may or may not be essential to his character. Depp is as usual very watchable and full of memorable tics. The real puzzle concerns the fourth lead player, Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner. She is hovering in the background throughout the action, getting closer to Corso as things proceed and seems not quite of this world with her gliding to Corso's rescue on several occasions. He assumes that she is in Langella's pay, hired to keep a watchful eye on him. Her role remains deliberately enigmatic throughout, but the 'big reveal' proves too much to accept. One is left with a 'what's going on' mentality as Corso too seems set on unlocking the fiendish secrets of the ninth gate. Well worth the rewatch, but just a little anticlimactic after Depp's noirish derring-do for the bulk of the film.
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