Film Stuff

Day 9: The Ninth Gate (1999)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make two assertions which might be seen as controversial:

To take the first point, Johnny Depp is a bookish collector of rare artefacts who, in the opening scene, steals a valuable treasure from under the nose of his rival. He returns in triumph with the prize, and is then summoned (stopping off at a university lecture) by a rich benefactor to examine the heritage of a book. The book contains special engravings which, when put together, form a set of instructions that point towards a divine encounter.

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Look – the heroes even wear the same glasses.

Depp’s client (Frank Langella) instructs him to travel to Europe to find the missing components of the book and piece together the puzzle. Pursued by a number of groups with different agendas, he endures ransackings, unexplained deaths and narrow misses from collapsing scaffolding. No rats, though.

Accompanied by a mysterious woman (who may or may not be a villain), he gathers together the evidence and begins to uncover the book’s secret. His paymaster unsurprisingly turns up to enact his own interpretation of the directives, only to die gruesomely when he gets the details wrong. With the final information in place, the hero completes the quest.

The main difference being, of course, that while The Last Crusade seeks the Holy Grail as the means to commune with God, The Ninth Gate is all about the search for the Devil. Replacing the Grail Diary is the “Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.” The representations of truth and light vs the evil Nazis are swapped for a muddied conflict between factions with increasing shades of grey and darkness.

Looking at some of the reviews published at the time, the main gripe seems to be the fact that Old Nick never turns up in person – the film builds to an anti-climax where the mystery is never fully explained. There is some debate over whether the unnamed woman is in fact the devil in disguise, but it’s not clarified one way or the other. Depp describes her at one point as his “guardian angel”, which probably has more truth than he realises, albeit in an inverted kind of way.

There are enough hints in the film to imply that the Devil does indeed have a presence in the form of Depp’s character, and the whole story is about his journey of self-realisation. In the opening scene, he invokes his powers of temptation by swindling a family out of a rare volume of Don Quixote. The characters he encounters have a habit of being consumed by fire and when he confronts the supposed main villain of the piece (Langella), who is waiting for the Devil’s appearance, Depp greets him with the words “I am the only apparition you’ll see tonight”. After a brief scuffle, Depp falls through the floor of the rotting castle, leading Langella to remark “I see you’ve found your niche” as he hovers, trapped, above the bowels of the dungeons. Finally, the last engraving depicts the mysterious woman riding a multi-headed creature, mirroring the somewhat ludicrous sex scene they’ve just had in front of the burning castle. The woman has been his protector throughout the film, a demon sent to guide him on his journey. The final scene shows Depp returning to the castle to fulfil the quest (and presumably open the Ninth Gate).

No, it’s not hugely clear, but do you know what – I quite like it that way. It leaves it open to interpretation and further imaginings. It makes me want to go and read Club Dumas, the book on which the film is based. It makes me wonder where the forces of good are in the story, if all it depicts are Devil-worshippers or weak souls succumbing to temptation. Then I remember it was directed by Roman Polanski, whose view of the world might not encompass too much godly conviction.

What I would have seen (if Netflix had the range): District 9

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