Ah, The Ninth Gate. This one leaves me conflicted. On one hand, it’s beautiful, has a great score (thanks, Wojciech Kilar – the use of horns and strings was mood-inducing as always), and has a subject that fascinates me: books as the driving force of the action. On the other hand, it’s Roman Polanski. I’ll be blunt: Polanski leaves me very torn. He’s a great artist for sure, but the whole rape issue that hangs over him leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Yes, his victim forgave him, but a man jumping the country because he was worried about a harsh sentence after drugging and fucking a 13-year-old girl up the ass doesn’t get much sympathy. You admitted that you did something beyond wrong and were prepared to go to jail; don’t whine about being in exile when you sodomized an underage kid without consent. There are arguments out there that the artist’s personal life shouldn’t influence how you see his or her works, but really, find me one artist that doesn’t pour him or herself into the works that are produced. How is this relevant? This ties back into the film and the concept of the antihero. I find that Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, runs a parallel to Polanski himself in The Ninth Gate: a weasel of a man that we wind up cheering for despite multiple instances of wrongdoing – we should hate him, and the conflict of attachment persists as the film progresses.
|So conflicted on this one.
From the offset, we’re presented with insight into Corso that makes him an antihero. He starts off by screwing over a man who’s had a stroke, quoting an unreasonable estimate for a book collection. The crowning point of this interaction comes when we learn that he’s practically stolen a set of volumes of Don Quixote. The worst part of this interaction? He doesn’t seem like a bad guy on the surface. He’s cordial and appears focused on helping the family make the best choice for the sale. He tells the family, “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to rush things. Please feel free to consult another expert.” He sets them at ease so that they don’t suspect that he’s crooked. The worst thefts are the ones that come with a smile and the option to choose; this deflects the situation away from the wrongdoing and back onto the victim by chastising that they should have known better. This first exposure to the character gives us the example that by all means, we shouldn’t trust Corso. To further fuel that observation, he becomes less personable as the film progresses. He tells Balkan at the initial offer of a job, “I don’t have you like you. You’re a client. You pay well.” Nice customer service there, pal. To his credit, he’s fairly equal-opportunity: he’s dismissive toward Liana Telfer when she learns her husband’s book has been sold, and he insults the Baronness Kessler later on in the film. In fact, he goes so far as to break into Kessler’s office in order to continue his authentication of her copy of The Nine Gates. He doesn’t take no for an answer and manages to come off as unlikable because he doesn’t really care about anything other than his assignment, which translates into money.
Corso also keeps silent on serious crime as the film progresses. We have three instances of murder in which Corso does nothing to apprehend the offender: Bernie, Fargas and Kessler. Upon Bernie’s murder, Corso attempts to quit the assignment from Balkan, but reconsiders after Balkan tells him to “tack another zero onto your fee.” Later, when Fargas is discovered, it is the burned copy of The Nine Gates that concerns him more than the loss of human life. It’s the same when Baronness Kessler is murdered while he is unconscious: his initial instinct is the book, then to flee the burning building. Self-preservation is crucial to him, not justice.
|“My friend is dead — wait, HOW much?”
From there, Corso escalates to murder. Corso beats Liana’s bodyguard to death during a struggle rather than settling for knocking him unconscious. Later, he attempts to stop Liana’s murder by Balkan, but is dissuaded rather easily by the Girl from doing so. This tiny shred of redemption – that he thought to save Liana – is destroyed when he begins goading Balkan as he’s summoning the devil. When Balkan demonstrates that the fire won’t burn him, Corso gives an unimpressed, “That’s great, give us another one.” It’s this utterance that incites Balkan to set himself on fire; only then does he begin to feel the pain of the flames. Corso frees himself, then moves to save the pages of the book rather than the suffering man before him. His killing of Balkan can be construed as mercy, but really, wouldn’t it have been more merciful to, oh, I don’t know, put out the goddamned man on fire?
So why in the hell would we stick with a greedy character that lies, cheats, steals, and murders? Shouldn’t we be shaking our heads at this, or wanting to turn it off? Curiously, we’re all kind of hoping that Corso gets to see the devil, and in the end, he does. Here’s my bonkers theory: we tolerate Corso because we get attached to Corso as our only option, much like we keep watching Polanski films because he produces art where others will not. Corso’s the one undergoing the journey from beginning to end; there’s no “good” character in it that makes you say, “I want THAT guy to win.” In this film, we can’t escape that Corso is morally questionable, yet he’s really the only protagonist we get, and as an audience, we adapt to that in order to help get interested in the tale. He’s a douche, but he’s our douche. This same principle seems to function for Polanski’s other offerings: we know of his past highs and can appreciate them, but the personal aspect of his life does indeed creep in to ruin the experience. However, by comparison, his work is far prettier and paced than many of the films coming out today. And here’s the rub that really chaps my ass – people still go along with it because some of his work is very good, and they’d rather see what else he can do than condemn what else he’s gotten up to in his personal life. It effectively presents a moral dilemma to the audience: do you praise the art in spite of a crime (and effectively reduce the experience of a scarred child who was sexually assaulted), or do you turn away from it on a maxim that nothing good can come from this person?
|A nice metaphor for my dignity.
In the end, The Ninth Gate typifies for me the unease I have concerning its director: I like the art, but not the person that created it. Corso tells his client that he doesn’t have to like him; all he has to do is pay him. In a sense, this sentiment is echoed in the deal you make when you watch a Polanski film: you may not like the man, but you’re in it for the art. The question then becomes whether or not you can stomach yourself in this bargain.