Darkness; the sound of a pen scratching on paper. First image: an old man at his desk writing. The camera moves and shows us, some distance away, a stool. We pause, oddly and mysteriously, on this stool. Then the camera tilts sharply upward: there's a noose connected to the ceiling. At the end of this suicidal prologue – so droll and so chilling at the same time – the camera will move past rows and rows of immaculately bound, antique books, and then it plunges into darkness again, racing through nine open gates as the credits of the film whizz by.
That is the start of Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate. It's a virtuosic, tremendously exciting piece of work by a great artist and craftsman. Polanski has been, it seems to me, underrated for too many years now, although I personally believe he has never made a bad or uninteresting film; even his relative failures are fascinating experiments.
Polanski has seized the opportunity to create this film (adapted from a novel by Arturo Perez Reverte) in order to show us, once and for all, how his style accommodates the storytelling traditions of all our yesterdays, as well as the new narrative forms coming into being with computers and video games and so-called digital culture. We could have expected it from him, really: Polanski has always been both a classical entertainer and an avant-garde modernist, part Hollywood and part Europe, straddling the Old World and the New World.
On the one hand, The Ninth Gate is a grand, old fashioned tale, a superbly controlled mystery about a strange and secret devil-worshipping cult that lurks within the ranks of bibliophiles hunting down rare editions of ancient, demonic tomes. Johnny Depp gets to play both a grave, amoral opportunist and a bumbling naïf, way out of his depth as he plunges further into a world of occult practices, femme fatales and impossibly rich men. At every point, Johnny is shadowed, tricked and – like some classic film noir hero of the '40s – conked over the head, left to wake up in the middle of a new, rearranged puzzle.
Polanski says that it's not a deep film about good and evil, and I take his word on that. It's a playful movie, all about surfaces, using the kind of modern special-effects technology that we've never previously seen in a Polanski movie. In fact, The Ninth Gate, for all its classical splendour, is a lot like a new-fangled computer game. The way the camera constantly, dispassionately alights on clues, signs, drawings, maps, doorways that whisk us instantly to another country, or into some other level or realm of the story – that's so much like scanning the surface of a computer screen image, then pointing and clicking on an icon, in order to go somewhere else in the game.
So this is narrative as game, a speedy adventure in time and space, where characters are shape-shifting ciphers, and every room hides some kind of trap door, some kind of secret. Trust Polanski – proud helmsman of the twentieth century's greatest art, ever youthful at the age of sixty-seven – to also do this twenty-first century digital storytelling stuff so much better than all those damn games-manufacturers and cyber-novelists.
MORE Polanski: Chinatown, Cul-de-Sac, Death and the Maiden, The Fat and the Lean, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Frantic, The Pianist, Repulsion, The Tenant, Tess, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Knife in the Water
© Adrian Martin September 2000