Artisan // 1999 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // September 12th, 2000
Leave the unknown alone.
Based on the novel "El Club Dumas" by Arturo Pérez Reverte, Roman Polanski directs an eerie but ultimately unsatisfying tale of the supernatural, starring Johnny Depp in a story about a book purportedly written by the devil himself. Lush in its set design and production, textured and well performed, it still manages to elude the greatness seen in other Polanski works in this genre such as Rosemary's Baby. Artisan has done a great job with the DVD release, however, better than the movie itself.
Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a book dealer with questionable morals and methods for obtaining rare books for those who don't really care how they get them. Frank Langella plays publisher Boris Balkan, a ruthless collector who has acquired a book called "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows," which purportedly contains engravings drawn by Satan himself. Balkan hires Corso to investigate the other two remaining copies of the book to determine their (and by contrast, his) authenticity. But the story takes a noir-ish twist when bodies start piling up and Corso has to flee from attempts on his own life. Aided by an enigmatic woman (Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of director Roman Polanski) who comes out of nowhere with suspect motives and even more suspect abilities, Corso becomes mired into a plot to revive Satan himself.
There is no mistaking this is a good-looking film. Polanski makes great use of sets and locations, meticulous in detail. Polanski has plenty of style for this noir-supernatural thriller hybrid, style evident in other work he's done such as Chinatown. He makes good use of the narrow European streets, and the buildings, from claustrophobic bookshops to aristocratic mansions.
There is a lot of promise in the plot and characters as well. Coming out in the same time frame as End of Days, the film goes the route of psychological horror with a very noir twist. There are some common plot elements between this and the more explosion oriented Arnie thriller but Ninth Gate puts the story more in the universe of Bogart's The Big Sleep, with Depp's Corso playing the gumshoe detective. As such the film becomes much more of a film noir detective yarn than a real supernatural thriller; becoming more a mystery with horror elements. I thought this had very real promise; using subtle scares rather than in-your-face special effects and a story that gave itself time to develop. I did like the atmosphere and much of the dialogue, and there was some symbolism I thought worked well.
The best part of the film is Johnny Depp, who is able to sink himself into virtually any role; even a much older man in this story. His performance kept giving me hope as the story slowly unfolded, waiting for the moment when the supernatural aspects would take over.
I'm afraid the rest of the film belongs in the next category, so I'll move onto the excellent treatment Artisan gave this DVD. The anamorphic transfer is simply superb; bringing off the stylish cinematography and reproducing it in all its glory. Even the smallest details are sharply delineated, with a very smooth look as if it were framed under glass for all time. No artifacts or edge enhancement, no ringing, halos, or moire patterns to distract from the beauty of this picture. There are a few specks from the source print, and a couple shots a bit softer than the otherwise terrific level of sharp detail, but these are tiny complaints that in no way distract the viewer. Colors are wonderfully saturated and represented as well, without smearing or blooming. Simply a wonderful picture, one of the best to come out of Artisan, which has been no slouch in this department.
The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is very expansive and spacious across the front three channels, though less so in the rear. Ambient sound effects are used subtly for the rear, as is Wojceich Kilar's (Bram Stoker's Dracula) haunting musical score. The sound works more like a drama than a thriller in that the track is very dialogue driven and front-center oriented, but I give it credit for being very spacious across that front, and there are a number of times when the front channels show great directionality and the areas between the front channels are also utilized. In addition, I enjoyed the fact that the dialogue and other sound levels were mixed expertly, resulting in no times of needing to adjust the volume or strain to understand a line. I thought the score was very well done, and for those who wish to hear it by itself, there is an isolated musical score. Unfortunately this track is only Dolby 2.0 rather than the better 5.1 track, and there are plenty of long gaps between the music, leaving empty spaces of silence.
The isolated musical score is just one of a terrific package of extras accompanying the film on this DVD. Most important among these is the commentary track by director Roman Polanski. My prior knowledge of him consisted mainly of his former wife being killed by the Manson family and his fleeing to Europe to escape statutory rape charges, but I learned a lot about his approach to films here. He covers how scenes were put together and why, as well as why he doesn't usually revisit his films (a feeling among far too many directors for us DVD fans). There are some gaps here as well, but it is still a worthy track to listen to. Good education for a fledgling filmmaker, there is a wealth of information buried within.
Other extras include a short two-minute featurette, production notes, cast and crew info, and three trailers, each taking a different marketing approach to the film. A gallery of satanic drawings provided more interest, providing explanations for the 9 engravings in the book that is the focus for the film. There are also storyboard selections for 6 scenes, where you can watch the film with the storyboards or a text study of the scene. This is a feature not used often enough, and I'm happy to see it here. A fourth trailer and three TV spots are also available, but they are Easter Eggs that take a bit of hunting to find. Find the first from going to "Trailers" in the Special Features menu, then hitting left on your directional keys. Another is in the storyboard section, highlight the letters "AT" when they come up. Highlight any "AT" letters that come up, and try directional keys on production notes and cast and crew pages for the rest. I have to give you something to play with after all.
The idea of making the film more subtle, more psychological, and slowly paced sounded better on paper than it turned out on the screen. My first two words after having seen the film were "ponderously paced." The film creeps along, gathering information if not momentum, and never delivers. Atmosphere is well and good, but it needs a story to carry it along, and this one mires itself in one slow scene after another, all of which add information to the story, but then much of it either does not pay off or is disappointing when it does. I simply hated the ending, which was so slow and anti-climactic that it simply underscored what I felt was a boring film. The first hour and a half or so I kept my hopes up, but to no avail. I don't know that I needed Schwarzenegger to blow something up, but I needed something to liven things up, to truly bring out the dread that the coming of the Prince of Darkness should awaken. Instead we get a woman who we (but not our hero) figure out knows how to fly. Even that went nowhere.
The supporting cast was either over the top or dead from the neck up. Frank Langella played it up big; too big, but he at least acted like he was there. Save me from directors putting their wives into films, since either the lady can't act and depends on nepotism, or too often the husband is too afraid to make the wife really give a solid performance. Emmanuelle Seigner, the wife of Roman Polanski, seems to underscore his penchant for girls too young for him rather than add anything to the film. Her acting stunk, she seemed nearly dazed, and her only real appeal, sex appeal, was hidden beneath bulky clothes, except when she took them off. At least there was that.
Ultimately we have Depp mired in a story going nowhere and surrounded by people not giving him much to work with. He moves well through a beautiful but defective film.
My only complaint with the disc itself is again the lack of subtitles from Artisan. Sooner or later they'll join the rest of the major studios that provide this mandatory feature.
The first thing I said to Sean before receiving this disc was "Can a horror film with Johnny Depp be that bad?" after having heard bad reviews for the film already. The answer to that question is yes, though I don't blame Depp. It's a beautiful disc, wonderful supplements, but I can't really recommend the film. Rent it for the supplements and to look at the cinematography and set design, but don't expect thrills from this thriller.
Polanski will doubtless get over this film, and I look forward to a story that matches his talent. Johnny Depp I look forward to seeing again, regardless of what he does. The film gets a fine for boring me, but the disc gets it a suspended sentence for some wonderful supplements and excellent picture and sound. Artisan did a good job here, except for no subtitles.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Storyboard Sequences
* Isolated Musical Score
* Production Notes
* Satanic Drawings Section
* Cast and Crew Info
* TV Spots