Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from seeing Roman Polanski’s new release. The veteran director of gripping 20th century benchmarks – Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown – has delivered a simmering thriller that’s the comeback testament of a major artist.
Whenever a truly great film comes along, there are always jokers (among them, film writers) who complain that it’s "too slow" or "unusual" or "different from the novel." Here’s Polanski serving up a continental gourmet banquet straight from the Alfred Hitchcock cookbook, one that should be savored, and viewers with too many Hollywood happy meals in their heads want faster service.
But The Ninth Gate is great unhurried storytelling. Its superb camerawork (by Darius Khondji, who shot The City of Lost Children and Seven), seamless acting and engrossing script (co-written by the director) are devoted to one thing: furthering the narrative. Watching it is like reading Treasure Island for the first time as a kid.
And what a cast! Johnny Depp, as a rare-book detective mired in intrigue over his head, shows why he’s one of our most personal, flexible actors. His noirish gumshoe, stuck in a horror movie without knowing it, is a wild combination of the cool and ridiculous, the sexy and fatalistic. He joins such doomed-obsessive sleuths as Jimmy Stewart (Vertigo), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Harrison Ford (Blade Runner) in our imaginary film noir hall of fame.
Then there’s the tongue-in-cheek but spot-on casting of Frank Langella (a famous Broadway Dracula) as Depp’s shady client. Lena Olin is uncanny as a fetishist’s dream, a French aristocrat whose animal passions carry an aura of the grave. And Emmanuelle Seigner’s mysterious innocent gives a new spin to the idea of temptation.
Polanski plants just enough visual clues along the trail to freeze us at the edge of foreboding and, as the web tightens around Depp, we realize he’s on to something that none of us is ready for – which is Polanski’s ultimate trump card in this wry, thoroughly subversive (im)moral fable.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].