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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Ninth Gate (review)

The Satanic Verses

This is a true story:

I was talking to a guy in a bar one night, just chatting about this and that, when I mentioned something about some book or other. His eyes suddenly narrowed and he glared at me suspiciously. “Oh, you’re one a them readers, huh?” he said.

One of them readers. Reading’s bad, ya know. It’ll only get you into trouble. Can’t trust people who read.
Just ask Johnny Depp, Book Detective. Depp (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands) plays Dean Corso, an unscrupulous New York City rare-book dealer — and by “unscrupulous” I mean “double-dealing money-grubbing bastard,” to quote The Ninth Gate, the most ominously silly movie since Eyes Wide Shut. Corso finds and authenticates rare books for disgustingly wealthy nutjobs like Boris Balkan (Frank Langella: Small Soldiers, Lolita), whose entire book collection is devoted to works about Satan. And now he has acquired an extremely rare copy — one of only three — of The Nine Gates Of The Kingdom Of Shadows, published in Venice in 1666 (hmm…) and reputedly written in conjunction with — wait for it — Old Scratch himself. Balkan wants the other two copies, and he’ll pay Corso handsomely to go to Europe, find them, and bring them back to New York.

People talk about rare books, but no one ever does anything about them. Not so Corso. His book adventures take him around New York and to Portugal and France, meeting more super-rich wackos like Liana Telfer (Lena Olin: Mystery Men), whose creepy old husband committed suicide just after selling his copy of The Nine Gates to Balkan. Mrs. Telfer, in her grief, grabs Johnny’s crotch and has sex with him — I mean, who wouldn’t… he’s Johnny Depp — revealing the serpent tattoo on her ass that’s A Clue to all the weirdness that will go down later. And then there’s Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), who fell in love with Satan “at first sight” after she saw him once, and is now writing his biography. Ho-kay.

There are also twin book dealers who aren’t particularly strange but may highlight some insanity — or perhaps just inanity — in director Roman Polanski: there’s no reason we can see that we need twins in this small dual role, and yet here they are… played by the same one actor (José López Rodero). I’m sure there’s some symbolic Luciferian meaning in them, but I just don’t see it. And there’s also a mysterious blond woman, mysteriously called The Girl (Emmanuelle Seigner), who also has sex with Johnny. I mean, who wouldn’t? He wears those sexy and intellectual-looking little round glasses, his hair is graying nicely and debonairly at the temples, and he dresses all in black. He’s too cool, and rather Faustian looking. That’s a reference to literature about Satan. See how smart I am? I’m one a them readers.

The Ninth Gate is full of old leather-bound books lining studies furnished with overstuffed chairs and big old desks and glorious and fabulously expensive oriental rugs. Many motes of dust dance in beams of shimmery sunlight. Lots of brandy is consumed in cozy old libraries and on luxurious trains on which you usually see people like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. This is a very warm and golden movie about the Prince of Darkness. It looks like the Levenger catalog with copy written by Stephen King.

Except The Ninth Gate is ridiculous, and never terribly spooky — except for that Baroness chick, who’s in a wheelchair and has only one arm and they never tell us why. With all the secret societies and religious hokum and warm goldenness, it’s like all the boring parts of an Indiana Jones movie that got left on the cutting-room floor spliced together by some rejected X-Files spec script. By the time Johnny and The Girl track down Mrs. Telfer to a chateau in the French countryside and discover they’re just in time for a ritualistic, Satanic orgy, dear gods, memories of Eyes Wide Shut that I’d thought I’d repressed come flooding back, and I’m a basket case.

“Cover me, I’m going down,” Johnny tells The Girl as they spy on the orgy from above. Now, is that really something you want to say at a ritualistic sex orgy? I think not.

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MPAA: rated R for some violence and sexuality

viewed at home on a small screen

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