(Part 2666 of an ongoing series)
To travel in silence / by a long and circuitous route, / To brave the arrows of misfortune / and fear neither noose nor fire, / To play the greatest of all games / and win, foregoing no expense / is to mock the vicissitudes of Fate / and gain at last the key / that will unlock the Ninth Gate.
Boris Balkan (Frank Langella)
I can understand why one might ignore Roman Polanski’s work on the grounds that he’s likely a cowardly sex criminal. (That’s not my stance on watching Polanski movies, but I do draw the line at watching his movies in any way that might put money in his pocket. For instance, I own Chinatown on DVD, because it’s freaking Chinatown, but I made sure to buy it used.) If, however, you’re the type who’d argue that Polanski’s crimes don’t negate his artistry (just as his artistry doesn’t negate his crimes), why would you ignore The Ninth Gate? Critics and audiences shrugged when it was released, and as recently as last year, when The AV Club did a “Gateways To Geekery” feature on Polanski’s films, they didn’t even mention this movie.
Which is a shame- at least, as shameful as it could possibly be to underappreciate a movie made by a likely sex criminal. Because The Ninth Gate isn’t just pretty scary and surprisingly funny and endlessly intriguing; it also feels like a work of living, breathing, cackling magick. Polanski can claim he doesn’t believe in the occult, but The Ninth Gate still exudes the aura of a powerful spell. (Especially in the third act. I’m pretty sure this movie unlocked some forbidden chambers of my subconscious.)
Yes, until that third act, the movie’s a bit on the slow side, as many of its critics have claimed. Still, I was seduced all the way through. (Granted, I’m quite partial to stories about booksellers and the frightening allure of arcane knowledge.) Hey, you know what other movie’s a bit on the slow side? Rosemary’s Baby. Now I won’t say that The Ninth Gate‘s better than Rosemary’s Baby, but I also wouldn’t say Gate pales in comparison. The two films actually make for an interesting kind of demonic diptych: one, a tragedy of a woman who has evil thrust inside her against her will; the other, a journey of a man transformed by his voluntary quest into evil. Of course, exactly how Johnny Depp’s Dean Corso is transformed remains tantalizingly ambiguous.
Which makes me wonder what The Ninth Gate might be saying about Polanski’s personal demons. Guilty or not, he’s been accused of one of the most evil crimes we have, if not the most evil. (Christ, murderers look their noses down at child rapists.) Now here he is telling the story of a morally dubious character, skeptical of the supernatural, who flirts with the darkest evil and maybe damns himself for it. Or maybe he’s simply transcended into some other eerie realm unknown to most mere mortals. While I can separate the art from the artist enough not to outright boycott Polanski’s work, I can’t separate art from artist enough to imagine that The Ninth Gate isn’t a stealth apology, a coded confession, a shameless self-defense, or an Unholy Trinity of all three.