Like the antiquarian books that cause all the fuss in Roman Polanski’s effete supernatural yarn, ”The Ninth Gate” looks dark and mottled — what dealers call ”foxed.” The color palette is right; it suggests secrets and mystery, hinting at wisdom and wealth, since rare old books are expensive. Early on I thought I could almost smell the sharp must of the leather bindings. But it turns out I was trying to judge a book by its cover. That scent was just the aroma of middle-brow, art-house Euro-rot, a whiff of decay and hauteur in a film not even a star as foxed and foxy as Johnny Depp himself could save.
And believe me, he tries, before giving up in sullen frustration. In ”The Ninth Gate,” Depp calls upon all his valuable skill at fleshing out brooders (”Sleepy Hollow”) and loners (”Edward Scissorhands”) to play a skulking book merchant named Dean Corso, a vaguely louche fellow, part scholar and part mercenary, whose weaknesses are drinking amber liquor, smoking Lucky Strikes, and cutting ethical corners to buy low and sell high. (Depp excels at simultaneously projecting refinement and grunge.)
Corso is engaged by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, fully reptilian), a snooty collector with deep pockets, keen on demonology, who has just obtained one of three known copies of ”The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows,” a guide to satanic powers. The younger man’s mission, in this adaptation of the novel ”El Club Dumas” by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, is to track down the other two copies for authentication.
It’s clear, of course, just from the volume’s medieval-looking woodcuts, with their arcane clues and riddles, that Balkan’s new acquisition is incendiary stuff. Accordingly, death, destruction, and bad karma follow Corso everywhere as he chases his quarry, first in New York (more like a smudged overseas facsimile), then in Portugal and Paris.
Like pages falling out of an old tome, the plot of ”The Ninth Gate” comes unglued slowly. But Polanski is too admiring of his woodcuts-come-to-life to notice. By the time Corso and his beatific, exotic bodyguard piece the puzzle together to surprise a gathering of satanists at a French château, the director has abandoned all semblance of dramatic tension. Instead, indulging his taste for creepy voluptuousness, he stages a convocation as quaintly recherché as the costume orgy in ”Eyes Wide Shut.”
The Baroness (Barbara Jefford), a steely gal in a wheelchair who sports the implacable coiffure of grandes dames the world over, calls Corso and his professional ilk ”voolves in ships’ clothing.” But it’s Polanski who’s the lupine one, leering and lecturing hysterically about sins of excess (whether it’s too much sex, materialism, God, or the devil) while enjoying, in that continental way of his, all that the decline of civilization has to offer.