The Ninth Gate is only Polanski's seventh film since 1973's Chinatown; he works at a dead man's pace, which is perhaps appropriate, since he is a corpse as far as most in Hollywood are concerned. His résumé since Chinatown is sparse and inconsistent: Save for 1979's elegiac Tess and 1994's desolate adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, he has produced little of note. Frantic, released in 1988, was the sort of Hitchcockian thriller even Brian De Palma has grown tired of making, and 1986's Pirates, a spoof starring Walter Matthau, is one step above Yellowbeard on the har-de-har-arrrgh food chain. Yet the pickings have been slim for Polanski: His distance from Hollywood has limited his choices, often to nothing at all. Over the past two decades, he has acted in nearly as many films (all European productions with little or no U.S. release) as he has directed.
The Ninth Gate, adapted from the Spanish novel El Club Dumas, hardly feels as though a "great director" made it. It plays like a tossed-off parody, one long punch line to a joke that began with the director's own The Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967 and Rosemary's Baby a year later. It's the anti-End of Days, a languorous thriller about rare-book merchant Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, still in high Ichabod Crane mode) sent by sinister publisher Boris Balkan (played with deadpan glee by Frank Langella, whose PIN number for everything is "666") to track down the two remaining copies of a book containing illustrations allegedly drawn by the devil himself. Eventually, we're led to believe, these drawings will summon Lucifer, who will then welcome the keeper of these drawings into the Ninth Gate -- where, of course, immortality awaits.
But the payoff never arrives, at least not the one we've been led to expect (by this film and so many others like it). There are no garish special effects, no grand revelations unveiled from behind the curtain. There is no cathartic release, only a shrug of an ending -- Polanski's gag, delivered with a nod and a wink. (This is a movie in which Depp refers to an attractive woman as "dishy.") Artisan, which is distributing the picture, might well be offering up The Ninth Gate as a supernatural thriller (its trailer makes it look like Stigmata), but it's simply a droll comedy hiding behind a devil's mask.
"How can you take this theme seriously?" Polanski wonders. "I really don't understand it. How can an adult, an intelligent person, believe in the devil? And you have to believe in the devil in order to make a serious film about it. I remember, when I was doing Rosemary's Baby, the only trouble with the subject was that at the end of the day, she gives birth to the devil's offspring, and I tried to make the film in such a way that it could be interpreted two ways. You can just assume it's all her imagination."
In The Ninth Gate, people aren't just murdered -- they're found with their tongues dangling from their mouths, their eyes bulging out, their electric wheelchairs bumping endlessly against walls. Such moments are hysterical, which is just as Polanski intended it, even though reviewers in Europe -- where the film opened last year -- seem to miss the point. One French review deemed the film a disappointment because it wasn't "scary at all."
"I realized, to my surprise and horror, that Kafka is not perceived as a writer with a sense of humor outside of Poland and Czechoslovakia," he says. "I remember reading Kafka, and I saw a lot of comedy elements in it, but in France, about eight years ago, I acted in Metamorphosis, and I realized the French don't see any humor in it. And with The Ninth Gate, when we were writing the script, we had so much fun, and we were laughing at so many lines and situations. Then I realized that not everybody gets that." Polanski chuckles. "I think youngsters see more humor in the film than adults. You can't take horror movies seriously."
Not so long ago, Polanski's friends insisted he was desperate to return to Hollywood -- desperate to become part of the system he was forced to abandon and to work on a regular basis. Now, he insists that is not true, that his difficulty in getting films made has only "a little bit" to do with his distance from the machinery. Polanski insists that he simply hasn't found projects he would like to make, and that when he does, the money is not there. He longs for the good old days, before films were made by committees instead of men like Robert Evans, the producer who nearly willed Chinatown into existence.