Friday, May 29, 2009

Film Friday: The Ninth Gate (1999)

Hollywood loves evil. . . cartoon evil. From sulking cannibalistic serial killers to Al Pacino’s devil screaming about being a lawyer, all of Hollywood’s evil characters display uncontrollable sadism and megalomania. They yell and scream and prance around shooting their underlings or kicking puppies so the audience knows they are evil. And every once in a while, a truly sinister one whispers ominously. . . and then prances around shooting his underlings and kicking puppies. The Ninth Gate rejects that. The Ninth Gate is an indictment of Hollywood’s version of evil. It is a warning that we have been so blinded by the glitz of Hollywood evil, that we can no longer recognize the real thing.

** heavy spoiler alert **

The Plot
Directed by Roman Polanski, The Ninth Gate is the story of Dean Corso (played perfectly by Johnny Depp). Corso is an odious little man who acquires rare books for well paying clients. We first meet Corso as he tricks a young couple out of a rare copy of "Don Quixote." Soon Corso is summoned by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a collector of books about the devil. Balkan has acquired a copy of the “Nine Gates to the Kingdom of Shadows” by Aristide Torchia. This rare book (only three exist) supposedly will allow the reader to summon the devil. Balkan suspects his version is a forgery and pays Corso to inspect the other two copies. Corso is told to obtain an original, non-forgery by any means possible. Thus begins Corso’s journey.

When Corso begins comparing the books, he discovers that Torchia hid a secret in all three books as a kind of puzzle. Each book contains nine supposedly-identical engravings. But Corso realizes that three of the engravings in each book contain subtle differences and that the engravings with those differences are signed “LCF” (meaning Lucifer).

As Corso examines the books, people around him start dying. He is also chased by a sadistic woman named Liana Telfer who wants Balkan’s copy of the book (Balkan took it from her husband). Telfer belongs to a cult and intends to use the book as part of a Satanic ritual. Corso also meets the Baroness Kessler, who claims to have seen the devil in her youth, and who has since dedicated her life to writing about the devil. Telfer eventually steals the book from Corso, and Balkan kills her to reclaim it. He then uses the book himself to attempt to conjure the devil. But the final engraving is a forgery. Thus, when Balkan sets himself on fire, much to his surprise, he burns. As he burns, Corso shoots him. Corso then retrieves the real engraving, which reveals the location of the ninth gate. As the story ends, we see Corso walking through the ninth gate.
The Message
The Ninth Gate is about real evil, and that evil is Corso. Corso systematically abandons God by engaging in each of the seven deadly sins and ultimately declares allegiance to the devil and voluntarily pass through the ninth gate. But can the audience see this?

To test the audience, Polanski does more than just tell us the story of Dean Corso. Indeed, he attempts to distract us with the over-the-top, pro-forma Hollywood evil of Balkan and Telfer. Polanski knows that we are so accustomed to Hollywood evil and Hollywood formula that we will see these two as “the” evil and we will dismiss Corso’s own evil. Indeed, like Pavlov’s dogs, we’ve come to expect that all evil is larger-than-life and that where there is an evil character there must be an opposing good character. Thus, we are conditioned to see Corso as “the good guy” and we cheer him on, no matter how evil he becomes. And evil he does become.

Throughout the movie, Corso’s evil continues to ratchet up notch after notch and Polanski turns each of these notches into a test for the audience. In each instance, as Corso undertakes his relentless, remorseless journey of evil, we are offered a justification for his conduct. But we are also shown why that justification is not valid. Can we recognize the truth? For example, Corso drinks and smokes to excess. Sure, it’s gluttony, but we all do it. He pushes away two beggars, but they didn’t seem very likeable. He steals from a dead man, but we’re told “he’s dead, why worry about him.” When Corso defrauds the couple of the "Don Quixote," we don’t mind because they are shown to be greedy people hoping to profit off their father’s stroke. Yet, we’re also shown that the father suffers when he see Corso’s actions but is powerless to stop him. Thus, our excuse that only bad people will suffer from his conduct is shown to be false.

Corso accepts Balkan’s assignment to do “whatever it takes,” which we know to be wrong, but we understand his motivation because Balkan offers him a tremendous amount of money. Indeed, our greed blinds us to the truth. When his best friend is killed because of this assignment, we nevertheless want him to continue -- after all, he’s dead, why worry about him. Corso sleeps with Liana Telfer under false pretenses, but we don’t mind because she’s evil and she was trying to use him. Later on, he even kills Telfer’s henchman, but it’s all in self-defense, right? Actually no. Corso kills the henchman after he knocks him unconscious. Corso could have simply escaped, but he was angry so he chose to kill the man. Anger, by the way, was once considered the worst of all sins.

And let’s not forget that Corso also kills a second time. He kills Balkan after Balkan sets himself on fire. But that was a mercy killing, right? He didn’t want Balkan to suffer in the fire, right? Actually, look again. Corso watches Balkan burn with more than a hint of satisfaction on his face. It is only near the end, as Balkan is about to die from his burns that Corso shoots him, to satisfy his own vengeance.

Further, consider the young woman with no name. She is the devil. How do we know this? We are never told who she is, but we are given clues -- like the rest of the film, her identity is a puzzle to be solved. Of all the characters, she is the only one with supernatural powers (she floats on air in one scene and changes her form in an airport in another). Also, her’s is the face of the woman riding the beast in the final engraving, and when she and Corso finally have sex, her eyes glow as the flames build behind them, making her physically appear as the devil might.

As the devil, Hollywood tells us she would be interested in Balkan or Telfer, but she’s not. She wants Corso because unlike the fake evil of Balkan or Telfer, Corso offers real evil. Indeed, interestingly, despite obsessing over the devil their entire lives, neither Balkan or Telfer ever realize that she is the devil -- even though she is standing right before their eyes. She is simply not what they expect, she’s not grandiose. Continuing this theme, Balkan even has a painting of the location of the ninth gate in his library at the beginning of the film, but never grasps its meaning. Polanski’s point in this, is that evil stands before us all the time, but we don’t see it because we are looking for something too grandiose.

With regard to Corso, the young woman renders her verdict when Corso kills the henchmen. She watches the murder with glee and then says with admiration, “I didn’t know you had it in you.” He has passed the test.

Finally, Polanski gives us huge hints from Corso’s own mouth. When he first deals with Balkan, Corso says to Balkan “my god” and refers to him on the phone as “his master’s voice.” While these could be viewed as nothing more than expressions or clever turns-of-phrase, they are instead meant to alert the reader that Corso worships the man who pays him. He has no other allegiance. When Corso discovers the puzzle within the three books, he says, “I’ll be damned,” as indeed he will. And when he finally decides he no longer cares about Balkan’s money, but instead wants to solve the puzzle and conjure the devil himself, he says to the young woman, “my god” -- effectively declaring a new allegiance to the devil. These are clues into the nature of Corso’s soul.

Each of these clues combine to show us that Corso is the true evil in this movie. He is the one the devil considers most compelling. That we lose sight of Corso’s evil because it is not over-the-top like Balkan is Polanski’s point. We the viewers cheer Corso along in his journey. We fail to see the evil in his acts, we justify what evil we do see, and we happily share his fate. That is the message of this film. It is no coincidence that the only two people to see the devil for who he/she really is are Corso and us.
Irony Gone Wild: The Critics
Let me finish with a bit of irony regarding film critics. As you know, film critics like to think of themselves as a nuanced and insightful group. They routinely claim to see a hundred shades of meaning in every hamburger and they love to complain that Hollywood never produces intelligent films. So what did they say about the very thoughtful and nuanced The Ninth Gate?

According to Roger Ebert, Johnny Depp played Corso “too odiously” to be the hero. Hmmm, sounds like someone didn’t understand that Corso’s surrender to evil was the point of the movie. The NYT said the movie wasn’t sufficiently scary. Of course, I hear that’s a common complaint about Socrates as well. Entertainment Weekly didn’t think the ending was spectacular enough. . . maybe Depp should have kicked a puppy?

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!

23 comments:

freedom21 said...

Blockbuster video, here I come!

That Roman Polanski...he's good at his evil.

Great Read, thanks!

AndrewPrice said...

Freedom21, you're welcome. Let me know what you think after you see it.

I'll respond to your comments in the other thread asap, but it's been one of those days -- very rushed.

SQT said...

Wow, that's a great breakdown of the movie. Into the queue it goes...

I like your point about Hollywood evil. Generally speaking Hollywood doesn't do subtle. And while it would be easy to be derisive of that, it's clear by the response from the critics, the audience doesn't really get subtleties most of the time. Granted, if entertainment was more sophisticated the audience would follow the trend. But I expect that the lowest common denominator will always be catered to.

AndrewPrice said...

sqt,

Glad you liked it. I knew I liked the movie when I first saw it -- I usually like Johnny Depp films. But then, the more I thought about it, the more impressed I became. It really has layers upon layers of subtlety in it.

It's actually the precise kind of movie that the critics claim to like. So it was interesting to see that they didn't "get it."

One of the problems I have with film evil (as I said here and in the Rollerball review) is that Hollywood seems to think that evil is always over-the-top and recognizes that it's evil. However, the best kind of evil that I've found in films or books, rarely sees itself as evil -- that's what's so insidious about it, it honestly thinks it's the good guy (even Hitler thought he was a good guy).

I much prefer to see stories involving this kind of evil than the more clownish stuff we usually get. It's more interesting to me -- more of a human study. But Hollywood rarely caters to me. Jerks.

On an interesting aside, I read the book the movie came from -- The Club Dumas. It's amazing how they got this movie out of that book. While I enjoyed the book too, it's 99% different than the film.

As with Freedom21, please let me know what you think of the film after you see it.

Writer X said...

I'll put this on the list for summer viewing. Thanks, Andrew. I was a Johnny Depp fan (mostly), till I made the mistake of seeing that Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Now I can't get past the gold teeth and the cheesy acting.

patti said...

i am continuously on the lookout for good movies. like sqt, in the queue it goes. it's going to be a long hot summer and we are going to need our break with reality. thanky.

Captain Soapbox said...

This movie, and "Secret Window" which I saw within the same week or so as I recall, were the 2 movies that solidified Depp's acting credentials to my mind.

I think the critics, and a lot of people who saw it but didn't "get it" had problems with the movie because the "hero" was undeniably evil. As you made the case for very well Andrew, to them they couldn't accept that subtle evil like portrayed is more insidious than mustache twirling Eviiiiiil, simply because people like that do believe they're the "good guys." Like you said, no one wants to think of themselves as evil even though they are.

Also to get a little political here, most reviewers tend to be pretty liberal. They don't like the whole slippery slope of one minor act leading to another, to another, and finally to a large act of evil because they don't care for the notion that actions do have consequences. Even worse there wasn't an outside force to pin his sins on, they all came from within himself.

I had a much longer and more well thought up post planned ever since I knew what movie you were going to do, but I'm starving so that's distracting the hell out of me (pun intended) so I'll try to think of something clever when I get back from supper. LOL

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Well written and well thought-out review. I really like the movie too, and though I had gotten the main theme right, I was amazed after reading your review how much I hadn't caught. I think I'll get it from NetFlix and take another look.

AndrewPrice said...

Captain, I think you're absolutely right to equate Hollywood evil with melodrama. Although they like to talk about making more "realistic" movies these days, in many ways the bad guys at least have all become Snidely Whiplash.

Everyone else, please feel free to share your thoughts on the movie (good or bad) after you've seen it.

Captain Soapbox said...

Hey everyone, if you have Starz, "The Ninth Gate" is on one of their channels right now. Just a head's up. :-D

AndrewPrice said...

UPDATE:

Everyone, having rewatched Ninth Gate tonight, I would add a couple more points to consider as you watch the film:

1. In the conversations between Corso and Kessler, there are three interesting exchanges:

In the first, which takes place while Corso is half-way through his journey to the dark side, this exchange occurs:

Kessler: “Do you believe in the devil?”
Depp: “Almost.”

Of course, by the end of the film he does.

Kessler also warns him that he does not know what he is messing with, and this exchange happens:

Kessler: “Get out before it’s too late Mr. Corso.”
Depp: “I’m afraid it already is.”

When he finally tells her about the “variations” in the three books, she says: “if that were true, it would be a revelation.”

This can be taken both as meaning "revealing" or as meaning a Book of Revelations, end of the world type event.

2. There are hints throughout the movie of the kind of sinful/evil people Corso is dealing with. For example, Corso's friend Bernie is a liar and a cheat, and would swear upon kids that don’t exist. There is a suggestion that Kessler's secretary and possibly Kessler are lesbians. And finally, there is just a hint that Gruber might be an ex-Nazi. Indeed, he’s old enough, he is clearly crooked, and he constantly wears lapel pins on his suit that are swastika-like. I see these ideas as giving us a general feel of corruption in the people around Corso.

3. And most interestingly, when Balkan invades the cult, he gives a speech that is an indictment on the whole Hollywood evil thing, though he sees it only in Telfer and not in himself. Indeed, he describes Telfer and her cult as “overdressed buffoons spouting mumbo jumbo” and then says, “do you really think the master would deign to show himself to you?” The same could be said of Balkan, who is "overdressed" throughout the movie. He also engages in a rather comical moment where he yells "Boo" and "the audience" flees. Balkan's speech is very much Polanski speaking directly to the audience.

Arias said...

"There is a suggestion that Kessler's secretary and possibly Kessler are lesbians."

Seriously? I had to reread this comment a few times to ensure that's what was said. Such conspicuous prejudice unfortunately tipped me off that this review and other blog posts appeared to be coming from someone with a strong political slant to the hard right.

Oh those evil lesbians are such evil people for being born the way they are.

I have a hard time believing Polanski would stoop to the crude, reactionary use of homophobia to suggest a lesbian as an evil person. He's more enlightened than that. She might have appeared more physically menacing at times, but her lesbianism should appear as coincidental as the race of Telfer's henchman was black. Also, by warning Corso to get out before it's too late Tessler reveals a thoughtfulness that extends beyond selfish reasoning.

AndrewPrice said...

Arias, Your assumption that we are anti-gay is ignorant and ridiculous. Several of the people associated with this site favor gay marriage. Secondly, I'm not aware of anyone who comments here or who contributes here that opposes civil unions or discrimination protection. So your assertion that we are hard right is political whining at best and dishonest at worst. Learn who you are talking about before you start making accusation the next time.

With regard to the mentioned hints of lesbianism, even you must concede that a great many people view gay sex as a sin. I personally don't care one way or the other, as it's none of my business what other people do. But this is a standard theme in many "tempted by the devil" movies, as it's an old Hollywood stand-by to use non-monogamous, non-heterosexual practices as a way of saying "sin."

Thus, it is fair to point this out and it's also logical to conclude that the suggestion that these two women might be lesbians is intended as yet another example of the sinful behavior of the characters he encounters -- especially when you consider that these sins were, for the most part, merely hinted at by Polanski rather than mentioned straight out.

Thus, I'm sorry if that offends you, but that's my honest opinion about what Polanski was trying to achieve.

If you want to discuss these issues, I'm more than happy to discuss them with you. But if you simply want to label us, then I'm not interested.

•AW said...

Another section of the film that supports your theory is portion taking place after the fight on the riverbank, when the Woman floats down the stairs. Corso accidentally hits her in the nose, bloodying it. Later, when they are in the hotel room, as her eyes are changing from black to blue, she wipes the blood from her face and drags it down Corso's forehead. Many baptism rituals consist of pouring water three times onto the forehead; her fingers create three red streaks. Also, martyrdom is oftentimes referred to as "baptism by blood."

The only portion I don't agree with is that the Woman is the devil. She is a familiar, sent by the devil to prepare Corso for Hell; thus, she baptizes him with her blood. Although Corso does behave deplorably, doing almost anything for first money, then his own satisfaction, the audience will almost never classify him as "evil," despite his voluntary journey into hell.

A vastly underrated film.

AndrewPrice said...

AW, Excellent points, especially the bit about the evil baptism. Much in the film is highly symbolic and that certainly is a great interpretation of Polanski's use of blood by the woman. In fact, your explanation adds a great deal of meaning to those particular scenes.

As for the woman being a servant of the devil rather than the devil himself, that's entirely possible as well. In either event, she is the representative of the devil in this film and she is here to scout out and recruit Corso. She is clearly indifferent to all of the other characters who are more "cartoon evil," and is much more interested in Corso, whose evil is the type that each of us undertakes and which the audience is not as likely to recognize as evil.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Wow, great review! Thanks!

The only scene I didn't like was the floating on air-scene. It's quite cheesy IMO and felt detached from the others in the movie. isn't floating in the air a kind of sensational "hollywood evil" anyway?

Depp's low-key performance is so much in contrast to Fear and loathing and many others, his range of acting is so huge but this is my favourite with him, along Donnie Brasco.

As for Roman Polanski; Rosemary's baby, pianist, Chinatown etc. So many great movies, any director you can recommend that is similar to him?

/lastbaron

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks lastbaron!

I'm glad you liked it. This is one of my favorite movies because it's just so well written and so well put together. Every time I see it, I see something new.

I also think this is Depp's best film. His acting is flawless in this. Moreover, he somehow manages to create a character that is simultaneously repulsive and yet so interesting you just can't stop watching him. And he does it without any props, effects or plot manipulation -- it's all acting. And that's truly impressive to me.

I agree with you about the flying scene. I guess Polanski did it to really make it clear to the audience that she was supernatural, but it felt out of place -- especially with how subtle Polanski is about everything else with her character.

Another director like Polanski? Hmm. That's a very difficult question. No one comes to mind. The movie Ronin, is a very well done understated action movie by John Frankenheimer -- he went for realism and drama, and it shows. Also, The Exorcist has a somewhat similar feel to Rosemary's Baby in that it takes its time and it lets the actors carry the story. But I honestly can't think of anyone whose style is similar to Polanski. Sorry about that.

Jonathan said...

Book Spoilers, as well as movie discussion.


I know the movie is a separate piece of art from the book, but after reading "The Club Dumas" I re-watched the movie and then started reading what others felt about the movie. The woman is clearly an agent of the devil in both. She is more evil appearing in the movie, and indeed appears to want Corso to open the ninth gate. In the book she is a fallen angel, a character of intense sadness. When speaking of Lucifer she also speaks of his sadness "he wants to go home".
In the book it appears the Arturo is trying to tell us that the great evil of Lucifer was allowing people freedom of thought, the snake that gives Adam and Eve the apple from the tree of knowledge. Clearly Polanski has unwound much of what the book is trying to tell, remaking it into his own story.
The ending seems to be the only way it can be as Polanski has set it up. Corso will open the gate and set Lucifer free upon the Earth. It is similar to the book in that it is abrupt, leaving the rest up to the viewer/reader. In the book Corso appears, and the villain (he is different, Polanski does some character shuffling) is preparing to perform the ritual to open the ninth gate. But Corso knows that the last print is a forgery. Only 8 were found to be signed bu LCF. He has realized that his "friends" as they were in the book, had forged the last, in order to sell the book. He remains true to form, demanding his true god, money. He continues to demand his payment knowing that time is running out and at the last minute leaves the room feeling the gathering darkness he flees and hears the screams as the summoning fails. He then leaves with the fallen angel, because they are a perfect pair. Weary of the world, slave to an imperfect master and yet, somehow, they give each other hope.

I hope that this is not to off topic, I just really enjoyed seeing the differences in the telling, and thought others might get interested in reading the book.

AndrewPrice said...

Johnathan, It's not off topic at all and thanks for commenting. I read the book as well and I agree with your interpretation.

I thought the "he wants to go home" bit was really fascinating, because it gave character to Satan for once, rather than just making him cliched. Indeed, that moment spoke volumes. It showed that being evil is not a happy state, as Hollywood like to portray the devil, and it also makes Satan something of a tragic character because he could presumably go home by just stopping being evil -- but he can't seem to help himself. It really is one of those moments in a story that makes you just stop and think.

Polanski definitely played with the characters a good deal, but I'm impressed with both versions and I would highly recommend both the movie and the book -- they aren't so similar that you will feel like you've seen or read it all before.

I agree that the ending in the film was the only way it could end, and I find it rather ironic that the critics didn't get that. They always complain that they want deeper characters, but the first one they run across who is not a standard Hollywood stereotype, they complain that he doesn't fit the stereotype. That's kind of sad.

I really wish Hollywood took more chances with more original characters like Corso.

mpk1988 said...

amazing review... U've nailed the movie.. to hell with the critics.. Just wanted to ask you.. How would u say AGEL HEART fared in this type of genre.. is it too melodramatic?? or worth the watch???

mpk1988 said...

Amazing review.. u've nailed the movie down to every single aspect.. to hell with the critics and n all.. Just wanted to ask you about ANGEL HEART... is it too melodarmatic or worth the watch?? n any other interesting movies of this genre??

AndrewPrice said...

mpk1988, Thanks! I think I know what you mean about the critics (imdb), but I really don't care about them. The couple who've criticized apparently have serious personal issues and are trying to read their own prejudices into this film.

Angel Heart is a strange film. It's one of those that I am glad I saw, but I wasn't sure exactly what I thought about it when it was over.

On the question of other films of this genre, someone asked that before and I've been racking my brains about this for some time. Sadly, I can't think of anything else that is even similar to The Ninth Gate -- which is probably more evidence of how well The Ninth Gate stands out. I really wish I could think of something, but nothing comes to mind.

If anyone does know a film that is similar in theme or style, please by all means, post it here!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea presented that Corso's evil is "unrecognized" - that evil in our everyday culture passes for "normal." However, Corso is the devil.
Polanski looked at the many films made involving the devil, and decided to build on a character trait seldom used in describing satan - that being that the devil in appearance is not recognized by others. [ The main characters are willing to do almost anything to "raise the devil," so it is in keeping with satan's character to follow the rules and "come forth" when called - while at the same time withholding the understood gratification for the summons.
None of the three book owners know that he or she is coming before the devil - yet each comes and makes his or her report to him.] Here's a list:
(1) Kessler is in a wheelchair because of a childhood illness or accident - - -
she made a deal with the devil that if only her life could continue, she
would agree to serve satan and devote her life to him. She said:
"When I was 15 years old, I saw the devil as clearly as I see you now."
( another reference to Corso as the devil )
(2) When Corso investigates two copies of "The Gates" and finds keys in
different hands, he says, " I'll be damned."
( a clear reference to Corso as the devil )
(3) Corso [ devil ] puts all main characters to the test. With the rare book
dealer, the devil wants to see Bernie's true character after having
a valuable book left in trust to the shop. Bernie's death is symbolic of the
best kind of human character - Polanski shows that through torture and
even to death, Bernie would not betray Corso. In fact, when the devil
later finds Bernie's dead body, he exclaims: "Jesus Christ"
[ as a matter of tribute ] . After leaving the rare book shop
Corso seems troubled - - - this is not due to the death of his friend.
It is because the "accuser of man" thinks he may be wrong about the
character of at least one individual.
(4) When Balkan first talks to Corso, about getting the book "at all costs"
and "never mind how," the devil reminds Balkan that "never mind how"
sounds "illegal." When Corso says, "this can be an expensive trip,"
what he really means is that Balkan will lose his life unless Balkan
changes his course of action.

Like the horns or the pitchfork, a goatee is an obvious character trait for
the devil. Polanski is having fun with us in suggesting that the most visible
thing is "right under our noses" all along and we're not able to see it - - - - -
or to recognize that Corso is the devil.

- - - The story was told that that "The Nine Gates" holds a series of riddles or
puzzles to be solved to "raise the devil." Since the devil co - authored the
book, what this REALLY means is this: after having been cast out of heaven by Michael and his angels, the devil needs to solve these puzzles in order to
"climb back to heaven." The devil may not know [ he ] is the devil - until he
successfully returns and "sees the light."

Corso has sex with both women ( because they are both witches ) - but trusts
and works with only the blonde one [ for she is a guide ] .

- - - There are endless other examples, but these should suffice.

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