1999, US/France/Spain, Directed by Roman Polanski
Colour, Running Time: 128 minutes
DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Whilst not considered a genre director, Polanski has visited horror and the supernatural on a number of occasions, bringing several brilliant excursions to the screen in the process. The first of these was the vivid exercise in mental deterioration and paranoia resulting in murder, Repulsion, still a powerful piece with an amazing central performance by Catherine Deneuve. This was followed by the Hammer homage/parody, Dance of the Vampires (on DVD as The Fearless Vampire Killers, its American title), something which is often misunderstood, possibly because it both was ahead of its time and possessed an unusual sense of humour that wriggles over most heads. Incorporating lovably offbeat performances (no stranger to acting, Polanski himself played one of the main roles) while creating a tangible atmosphere in its gothic trappings and hinting at apocalypse for the conclusion, Dance… works well for me. Then came the iconic Rosemary’s Baby, a perfectly ambiguous tale of possible satanic impregnation (the build-up to the birth of the Devil’s child), mistrust and delirium. After the horrendous violence of his version of Macbeth, there came the lesser known but quite superb Le Locataire (or The Tenant) in the mid seventies, where Polanski successfully took centre stage as the main character who undergoes psychological disintegration as he suspects his neighbours drove the previous occupant of his apartment to attempt suicide and are now doing the same to him. The spiralling madness of this film is superbly orchestrated and it’s a pity that it is not more widely acclaimed.
Two decades later there was The Ninth Gate, a slow paced, deliberate supernatural detective movie condemned by many on its release and, much like the director himself has sometimes been, generally misunderstood. Taking the book El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as the source of inspiration, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, and Polanski removed entirely a secondary plot about a lost chapter to The Three Musketeers to focus their screenplay on the pursuit of a book containing an incantation to summon Satan - they wisely re-titled the film to reflect this shift in focus thereby openly acknowledging that the film was never going to be a 100% literal adaptation. Polanski’s first choice for the book detective Dean Corso was Johnny Depp, and Depp obliged by jumping on board and making the role his own in an understated performance that lends Corso a bit of mystery, his life outside of book obsession given little attention. Different to how the director originally envisaged Corso, Depp’s work here nevertheless pleased Polanski and functions nicely. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan, an authoritative Frank Langella, to track down several other copies of a rare occult book that Balkan has in his collection, an attempt to authenticate one of them and thus provide him with the means of granting manifestation to the Devil. Accepting a large paycheque Corso heads off to Europe to take a closer look at the few remaining copies, but he quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in the book as several strange people seem to be on his tail. The plot also deepens as Corso’s analyses reveal that it may not be one book that is completely authentic, but a combination of all three, and Balkan will seemingly pay any price to carry out his ritual. Quite why The Ninth Gate seemed to attract a few bad reviews I’m not really sure, but I find the story, dialogue, and character interactions to be particularly gripping, the film appropriately constructing a world that evokes supernatural ambience without overtly indicating that such manifestations are definitely possible, the ambiguity of which being something that arises out of Polanski‘s personal disinterest in the Devil‘s existence, this paradoxically enhancing the supernatural material that he has worked on. Polanksi’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, looks at home in the role of a woman who herself may be a physical embodiment of Satan, with her strikingly European face and strong presence, and in supporting capacity there is Swedish-born Lena Olin as Liana Telfer, an incredibly sexy older woman who also seems to have a fanatical interest in the book that Balkan purchased off her husband the day before he killed himself. The score written by Wojciech Kilar really adds meat to the strange world we inhabit with the characters, sometimes quirky, occasionally creepy but always hinting at something unexplainable co-existing with humanity. This was the same man who provided the sweepingly powerful score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the early 90s, though he generally tends to work in Polish cinema. Conveying a prominent love of books as both a physical entity and carrier of knowledge, Polanski’s film takes us on an adventure with its protagonist into the delights (or tortures) of the beckoning unknown.
Universal’s now quite old DVD presents the film correctly in (anamorphic) 2.35:1 and looks quite good, more so in exterior shots, however there is quite a lot of grain and dot crawl during darker sequences. An erring towards almost sepia-tinged interior photography does not lend itself well to chromatic vibrancy and a HD upgrade would be welcome, but overall the transfer here is not too bad. The Dolby track doesn’t possess much ‘oomph’ but is suitable enough for the wonderful music and otherwise mostly vocally driven soundtrack. Aside from stills, drawings and a hopeless promotional featurette (running a whopping two minutes in length), there are the worthwhile inclusions of a slow-talking Polanski commentary, and an isolated music track giving us the chance to enjoy Kilar’s score without sound effects and character dialogue. Settle back for a slightly old fashioned but carefully constructed voyage through a world of the subtle uncanny towards an indiscernible destination.