Mercenary book expert Dean Corso is hired by rich, powerful, and psychopathic Boris Balkan to find the two other surviving copies of a Satanic book said to be able to summon the Devil, and compare them to see which one is genuine. Unfortunately, others are looking for the books, and will kill to get them. Corso is unequipped to deal with murderers, but he is aided by a strange, green-eyed girl, who may be on Balkan’s payroll.
I’m not going to argue for the high quality of The Ninth Gate. I’ll state it. This is an extremely well made work. Roman Polanski knows his craft, and he has never plied it better. Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, and Lena Olin are all accomplished actors that bring substantial weight to their roles. And Emmanuelle Seigner (Mrs. Roman Polanski) is beautiful and enigmatic, which is what her part requires. The music, art direction, sets and locations, and cinematography are all superb. To repeat, this is skilled filmmaking in action.
But skilled filmmaking of what? You’ll rarely find a more ambiguous film. Most critics have no idea what to make of it, assuming it is a standard horror film with a nonsensical ending. Many complain that it isn’t scary enough, which shows an amazing lack of understanding, even for a film that’s hard to figure out. It’s not scary because it isn’t supposed to be. This isn’t a horror movie. To say any more requires giving away the ending. After checking out both reviews and viewers’ comments, it seems clarity is needed more than another review, so that’s what I’m going to do. The review is finished; it is analysis time. If you haven’t seen the film, stick with what I said in the first paragraph.
For the rest of you, The Ninth Gate is not a tense, Satanic thriller nor a fright fest. It is a light, occasionally humorous, noir mystery with a message. It is the tale of a book buyer, not James Bond (I’ve read complaints that it doesn’t have a car chase; why should it?), that often parodies horror tropes. It’s not surprising that lazy critics compare it to Polanski’s Satan-themed Rosemary’s Baby, but the two have little in common. The earlier film took its Devil seriously, which is something Polanski couldn’t do. Not a believer (in the Devil, nor in God), he left an out in that film that perhaps all the supernatural elements where in Rosemary’s head. But in The Ninth Gate, it’s all real, so his “out” is that The Devil isn’t what you thought he was.
What throws everyone is the ending. What happens? Corso, who has been unintentionally passing through the gates that are described by the woodcuts, finds the missing picture and enters the ninth gate in a flash of glory. If he is entering Hell, where’s all the fire and pain? Why does it look inviting? I’ve repeatedly heard people claim that since it looks nice, he must be entering Heaven, and that the whole story has really been his path to redemption. Not a chance.
The simple stuff first: The girl is a devil. She’s not an angel. I thought her glowing eyes and demonic visage during sex made that clear, but for any doubters, Polanski, who has avoided explaining the film, confirmed her infernal nature. Also, Corso does not become a better person, although we sympathize with him more late in the film. He cheats people at the beginning and beats a man to death at the end. Not exactly signs of enlightenment. But he also hasn’t been walking some dark trail of damnation. His violence is not without provocation.
He isn’t a notably better or worse human being when he enters the ninth gate, but his desires have changed. He isn’t looking for cash, but knowledge. And there, finally, the film starts to fall into place. Many people are caught up with the terms “The Devil” and “Hell”, assuming the first must be evil and the second must be unpleasant. But that presupposes a Christian point of view that Polanski lacks. The ending mocks such positions. The Devil of The Ninth Gate is amoral, not immoral. (And there is no God. This isn’t Christianity; the existence of the Devil is no proof of the existence of God because he isn’t “that” devil.) He is the goal of life, in the abstract. The members of the Satanic cult couldn’t enter the ninth gate because they were either looking with faith, which gets you nothing, or just going through the motions to be hip, which gets you less. Balkan failed because he wanted power for himself. He let emotion win out over thought, and fried for it. But Corso never lets belief dictate his behavior. He never has a religious epiphany. He’s always calm and logical. And that’s why he wins. The prize isn’t ultimate power or eternal torment. It’s just the next puzzle.
Does of The Ninth Gate have a positive view of The Devil? As much as it has any view at all, yes. But there’s no horned monster waiting to be released upon the Earth. This is a fairy tale, and Satan is a symbol. There are no frights in the movie because this devil is nothing to fear.