BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jul 18th, 2000 •

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Roman Polanski has always been a master filmmaker with a specific visual point of view towards material that often explores ironic, absurdist, surrealistic, horrific and macabre narrative storytelling. From his early and legendary shorts made as a student while attending the Lodz film school in Poland to his Hollywood era that resulted in the contemporary classics Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) to his present European period Polanski has always been a superb craftsman with a very dark side.

Polanski’s curriculum vitae are now cinema legend. As a child he barely escaped death by the Holocaust. In Hollywood he was at the height of his fame when the Manson family brutally murdered his wife, actress Sharon Tate, their unborn child and several of his closest friends. His penchant for very young women put him in his current exile status when he was charged with rape of a thirteen year old in 1977 and escaped to Europe before sentencing. Polanski cannot return to Hollywood to work without facing arrest and imprisonment – a reversal of fortune seems unlikely in a puritanical society such as ours. To sum up, Roman Polanski is gifted and haunted. He lives with the fear that one day his luck may run out. Polanski’s only salvation is as a great artist he works out his life script by expressing past experiences with moving images and sound.

Sadly, the exile has negatively impacted on Polanski’s career. The limitations imposed by not facing his American crime have sent this once vital filmmaker back to reinvent old Hollywood methods and without the technical, financial and talent resources he once thrived on. His first film on the lam, Tess (1979) an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy Novel “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, was a triumph of period filmmaking. Frantic (1988) was a vibrant thriller staring Harrison Ford and Polanski’s current wife Dominque Sangier. Bitter Moon (1992) was a compelling surrealist exercise in style and complex storytelling but the failures have destroyed Polanski’s auteurist/pantheon status. Pirates (1986) was an unwatchable homage to the swashbuckler genre. Death and the Maiden (1994) was based on a cutting edge political play but Polanski turned it into a film cinematically and narratively dated.

Now after five years and several unrealized projects Polanski is back with The Ninth Gate. The film is a supernatural thriller that deals with the devil, a familiar subject to the director of Rosemary’s Baby and a man whose life was forever changed by madman who sees himself as an earthbound Prince of Darkness.

The Ninth Gate is an adaptation of the novel “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez-Reverte with a screenplay by John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu and Polanski who is a master at condensing long form literary works into films that retain the writer’s original spirit and intent. Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a mercenary book detective hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a witchcraft lecturer and collector of books where the devil is a protagonist, to track down the remaining two copies of a book Balkan claims reveals the secret of entering the ninth gate to Lucifer. The narrative is dense but logical. Polanski uses the illustrations of the ancient volume to help Corso solve a series of murders executed to the exacting details of the book believed authored by Beelzebub himself. The result is reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) which also inspired aural interpretations in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). The book and the literary milieu capture Polanski’s curiosity and inspire his dexterity as a visualist. The dialogue is witty and diabolical at times, corny at others like when Balkan says, “Flattery will get you nowhere Mr. Corso, get on with it!” Lena Olin is sexy and delightfully possessed as a widow also in search of the direct route to hell. Emmanuelle Seigner plays a character only identified in the credits as “The Girl”, a hitchhiker who mysteriously appears throughout the film to assist and entice Corso.

The Ninth Gate is thoroughly entertaining and rendered in a stunning physical production with the assistance the masterful production designer Dean Tavoularis (The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now, Tucker: The Man and his Dream). Trouble is the film is too well-crafted for its own good. The color palette is deliberately limited and obvious at times. Many exterior locations were built on a soundstage and look artificial. In fact watching The Ninth Gate one starts to believe that Hitchcock may have not really passed on or that his artistic soul has inhabited Polanski. There are too many blue screen driving sequences and so much artifice that the film becomes hopelessly old-fashioned even though the “camera tricks” as Polanski calls them were rendered by state-of-the art computer technology. The mise en scene is also bogged down by countless noir and detective references that seem to amuse the director but can only communicate with the learned few.

Polanski is still filled with irony and absurdity which is a treat for his admirers. The best moment in the film is when the Baroness Kessler played to the hilt by Barbara Jefford with a faux German accent is murdered. Polanski stages the scene with the Baroness’s wheel chair repeatedly slamming into a wall. When Corso approaches the dead woman her face is contorted and her tongue outrageously extended. Another Polanski touch is a cameo by veteran character actor Allen Garfield who plays an elevator operator. When the actor arrived for work Polanski learned that one side of Garfield’s face was paralyzed (probably from a stroke) so he decided to exploit the actor’s condition to add to the absurdist atmosphere the director has built his reputation on.

This DVD sports an excellent 16.9 transfer that preserves the elegant and atmospheric cinematography by Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Se7en, Stealing Beauty) and the multitude of subtle digital effects detailed by Polanski in his informative and artistically revealing commentary (but don’t expect any psychological or emotionally reflective insights that may shed light on Polanski’s complex persona). Other specialties include a featurette with interviews and footage of the director at work (Polanski still wears his hair in a long Beatle cut and still appears characteristically impish and youthful at 66).

The Ninth Gate comes recommended by this reviewer. It may be minor Polanski, its certainly no Repulsion (1965). The film is out of touch much in the same way as Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut but it still the work of a master filmmaker and how many of those are around and working these days?

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