Devil may care less

Polanski's Ninth Gate has a few chills but is devoid of thrills

The Ninth Gate shares a number of elements with another recent work from an aging enfant terrible -- Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. (Although Kubrick was 70 when he died and Polanski is now 66, it has always been impossible to regard either as an old man.) Both feature young stars playing thoroughly modern characters, wandering through a paranoid, surreal landscape that seems oddly anachronistic. Both feature castles full of wealthy people engaged in pompous, old-fashioned demonic rituals too ludicrous to be truly scary. At least Polanski seems more aware of the silliness of his demonic-ritual scene: The villain's entrance is hilariously dismissive of the tackiness of it all. Unfortunately, it's followed by another demonic ritual scene whose effect is far less comic.

It's easy to imagine that the villain's attitude is reflective of Polanski's toward the project itself. "Here I am," the villain seems to be saying, "a brilliant man, lowered to hobnobbing with superstitious inferiors. What has the world come to?" Likewise, Polanski seems disengaged by The Ninth Gate, as though offended that this pseudo-profound spook story is the best material he can wrangle while in exile from Hollywood. (The scuttling of The Double, his Dostoyevsky project with John Travolta, certainly didn't help.) There are moments when The Ninth Gate shows the director's unique comic sense of creepiness: A scene with twin bookbinders -- both played by Jose Lopez Rodero, who is cleverly composited into one frame -- has the same droll, offbeat eeriness that informs much of Cul de Sac and The Tenant.

But such moments are too few and far between. Despite a game attempt by Depp and excellent support from Seigner, Olin, and Langella, The Ninth Gate has a tired, offhand feel to it.

Depp on it: Johnny D. looks all brooding and lonesome, like a little teddy bear.
Depp on it: Johnny D. looks all brooding and lonesome, like a little teddy bear.


Directed by Roman Polanski

Written by Enrique Urbizu, Roman Polanski, and John Brownjohn; based on the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Starring Johnny Depp, Emmanuelle Seigner, Frank Langella, and Lena Olin

Opens Friday.

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