(director/writer: Roman Polanski; screenwriters: John Brownjohn/Enrique Urbizu/from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Spanish novel El Club Dumas; cinematographer: Darius Khondji; editor: HervĂ© de Luze; cast: Johnny Depp (Dean Corso), Lena Olin (Liana Telfer), Frank Langella (Boris Balkan), James Russo (Bernie), Emmanuelle Seigner (The Girl), Barbara Jefford (Baroness Kessler), Jack Taylor (Victor Fargas), Jose Lopez Rodero (Pablo and Pedro Ceniza), Tony Amoni (Bodyguard), Willy Holt (Suicide); Runtime: 132; Artisan Entertainment; 1999-Fr./USA/Sp.)

“Visually stunning”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-in-exile Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) and the occult go together like butter and toast. This, his first film since his 1994’s Death and the Maiden, is a visually stunning mystery chiller about the supernatural that is a good example of old-fashioned storytelling. A lengthy film (132 minutes) that doesn’t overstay its welcome as it keeps one guessing till the very end how it will be resolved and even then, there is puzzlement. But the film is not without some flaws in its storytelling as attested by the last scenes, which are resolved in pyrotechnics.

Many critics will justifiably argue that there is no proper payoff in the director’s payoff. But I’ll take this Polanski version of a horror story over so many others that I have seen recently, since there is an elegant craftsmanship in his film and an ability shown by him to keep one in suspense for most of the film without resorting to Hollywood’s special effect grab bag of tricks typically used for this genre. Polansky also captured the feel of what it is like to be a rare-book collector. It is a film that if it does nothing else, it accurately depicts the lives of those who are searching for dramatic meaning in their life through books of the occult. That Polanski is a skeptic, only adds resonance to the telling of the story.

A sleazy Manhattan rare-book dealer and consummate chain-smoker, Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), is hired for a significant fee by a sinister, extremely wealthy collector of occult books, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), to track down and authenticate which of the three extant copies of a 17th century illustrated book “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows” authored by Satan himself is not the forgery. Aristide Torchia, who co-authored the book, was burned to death by the Spanish Inquisition as a heretic.

Balkan, as owner of one of the three copies, has an overconfident reliance on his demonic beliefs. He is dressed in an expensive pin-striped Armani-type suit and exudes material success. After Corso meets with him in his sleek New York skylight library setting, he is told that he will have to travel to Portugal and France to track down the other two books.

The first casualty of the book’s recovery is an elderly gentleman (Willy Holt-Polansky’s art director in “Bitter Moon”), who hangs himself from a chandelier in his study. He sold his book to Balkan the day before killing himself. Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) is his rich widow. She aptly fits the description of a femme fatale in a noir film dressed in a very non-mourning sexy black — she seduces the book detective Corso in his New York apartment. She comes calling on him, trying any possible means to get back the book. When she is through with her sexual romp on the floor with the owlishly bespectacled Corso, who is sporting a goatee, she discovers that the scholarly lover of rare books doesn’t have the copy of Balkan’s Ninth Gates in his knapsack. She will, thus, hunt him down for the book throughout Europe using her bodyguard/lover (Amoni), a black man with blond hair (apparently an albino), to do all her dirty work.

The only friend the mercenary book broker seems to have is Bernie (Russo), a New York rare-book dealer, whom he has entrusted the invaluable book with. When he heads to the airport, he stops by Bernie’s bookstore to get the book and finds him hung upside down in a similar way to the first illustration in the Devil’s book. Corso takes the book Bernie securely hid for him to Europe and places it in his knapsack. He does not make a copy of the book and therefore places himself in an awkward spot if the book should be stolen.

In Toledo, Spain, Corso goes to the Ceniza Bros. bookstore, where the Telfers acquired the “The Ninth Gates.” He interviews the twins (Jose Lopez Rodero-he plays both parts through the clever use of f/x camerawork), in a scene that was deliciously funny, as the twins explain what a forgery is and how rare books could be verified by how they are bound together. Corso then visits with Victor Fargas, in Sintra, Portugal, who now owns the book. It is interesting to see this once grand mansion where the nobleman Fargas lives and how the once wealthy intellectual is forced to survive by selling off a few of his rare books every so often, but who refuses to sell the book that Corso wishes to obtain. His unique lifestyle is one that is rarely depicted in movies as well as it is here.

After some hectic dealings in Portugal Corso takes his detective work to Paris, where he meets the elderly wheelchair-bound Baroness Kessler (Jefford-noted Shakespearean actress), in an attempt to see if Lucifer has put his autograph on her book. Not surprisingly, murders and intrigue follow the book detective’s path, as he gets more fully enmeshed in the search for authenticity. Some of the collectors believe that by having the right formula they can conjure up the materialization of Lucifer himself, giving the person holding that secret the same power as God which is, indeed, if possible, more than what money can buy.

While Corso goes from one “Ninth Gates” owner to another to authenticate their copies he’s pursued by a nameless, green-eyed blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner-Polanski’s actress wife), who appears out of nowhere and acts as his guardian angel, and who may possess supernatural powers. She is the most enigmatic character in the story, whose real identity will be revealed by the end of the film. She did not appear to be like the other book lovers in the film, even her choice of reading material is absurd “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” She did have one nude scene in the movie, which she passed with flying colors.

The film turns into a series of questions: Whose side is the karate skilled, mystery girl really on? Is she on Corso’s side? Balkan’s side? Her own side? But the more pertinent question is, will Balkan get Satan’s powers by getting all the books?

There are more things to like about this film than dislike. For starters I was impressed by Depp’s subdued performance, it gave his character credibility and even though he wasn’t an ethical character, he made himself more palatable as the film progressed and he seemed to become more of a victim than someone who is uncaring in this deal for just a windfall profit. He had a healthy detachment from the subject matter of the book (just like the director was detached from the storyline), as he unwittingly uncovers various reasons people like to collect occult books. Then there is Langella, who is able to give a masterfully threatening performance as someone not satisfied with all his possessions but who is after the power of the Devil. Satan shows up not in a materialized form for him, but is viewed as an imaginary being. Langella is more scary when he is offering his kindness (money) to Depp, than any use of a special-effect externalization of the Devil could have been.

I was also impressed by the way Darius Khondji’s cinematography took me around Europe and into castles, private library collections, voyeuristic-ally looking into dark corners, and into a devil worship ceremony. It was shot largely by using a wide-angled lens, always pointing to interesting shots of dark corridors, or of villages that had a strangely beautiful feel toward them. I felt I was transported into the world of book collectors, hearing them converse and seeing what makes them want to be collectors, and how some are merely pretenders and some real lovers of books.

The film, unfortunately, ultimately suffered from an undue silliness and how it ended by fading out to a glowing white screen as if that is supposed to mean something special, did not work for me. Unless it is meant solely as Polansky’s private joke that all this devil worship is nonsense in the first place and by ending on a blank note, all he is doing is telling the audience that there is nothing to see. If there’s a more metaphysical message, it wasn’t conveyed to me by the film. But, that aside, I still maintain that this picaresque film adapted from Arturo Perez-Reverte’s popular Spanish novel El Club Dumas is better than most satanic thrillers, especially those recent ones relying on blood and gore to shock the viewer. Here the director is mostly spoofing the conventions of horror movies and it is his very personal humor that should be appreciated, along with the brilliance he brings to the screen with his filmmaking ability.

The Satan worshipers’ annual meeting on Torchia’s birthday is a good example of what I mean by the director’s brand of malevolent humor being on display, seeing how the wannabes in satanism are cloaked in black and using mumbo jumbo to summon up Satan as Langella boldly enters their ceremony and calls them all fools and shouts, “Boo!” We then see them run for cover. That is the joke Polansky is having with the audience. It is similar in intention to what Stanley Kubrick’s black mass orgiastic gathering in Eyes Wide Shut accomplished. Both these ritualized ceremonies should not be looked at without seeing them for the farces they are in the eyes of each filmmaker.

Polansky has crafted a metaphysical suspense film that is more lightheaded than scary, which might disappoint some but should not take away from the many pleasures derived from this engrossing thriller.