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Film / The Ninth Gate

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The Ninth Gate is a 1999 mystery thriller film freely adapted from the Spanish novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, directed by Roman Polański and starring Johnny Depp with Frank Langella, Lena Olin, James Russo, and Emmanuelle Seigner.

Dean Corso (Depp) is an expert on rare books, who is hired by a wealthy collector named Boris Balkan (Langella) to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. The book, which was written in 1666 by Aristide Torchia, is reputedly an adaptation of another book, the Delomelanicon, written by Lucifer himself, and contains instructions on how to summon the Devil and gain supernatural power. After Torchia was burned at the stake, three copies of The Nine Gates survived into the present day, but Balkan, who believes that only one of these is authentic and the other two are forgeries, asks Corso to compare his copy to the other two and find out which is the real book.

His investigation causes Corso to cross paths with a number of other collectors, who like Balkan seem to believe the book has genuine power – and will do anything to learn its secrets. Initially disbelieving of the supernatural, the things Corso sees begin to change his mind, and he discovers a secret of The Nine Gates which could be the key to solving its riddles and achieving ultimate power.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Corso, who's described in the novel as being rather unattractive, is played by Johnny Depp.
  • Adaptational Villainy:
    • Liana Telfer, compared to her original counterpart. In the novel the film is based on, Liana is a Red Herring only interested in Corso because she's the head of an Alexandre Dumas fanclub and they want an unfinished draft of The Three Musketeers that Corso has on him. The Dumas subplot is entirely removed and Telfer leads the Order of the Silver Serpent, a Cult dedicated to the worship of Satan.
    • In the novel Corso plans to steal Fargas' book and blackmails the Baroness with knowledge of her Nazi sympathies to get access to her collection, and in the film he does neither. On the other hand, one of the lectures of the ending is that he uses the correct engravings to summon the Devil, something he wasn't interested in in the book or in the movie up to that point.
    • The Girl. In the book she claims to be a fallen angel who has wandered the world looking for companionship. In the film it's very heavily implied she's the Devil, or at least is a force for evil.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie removes several subplots from the novel, combines numerous characters and changes the ending. It still works quite well though.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Lucas Corso of the book becomes Dean Corso. Enrique and Liana Taillefer become Andrew and Liana Telfer. Baroness Ungern becomes Baroness Kessler. Varo Borja becomes Boris Balkan. (There is a character called Boris Balkan in the book, but it's a different character.) The Girl uses the pseudonym Irene Adler in the book, but is nameless in the film.
  • Always Identical Twins: The Ceniza brothers, with their performer Acting for Two.
  • Ambiguous Ending: What did Corso do and what does the ending scene mean for him? The interpretation is different depending on how you interpret the movie's characters and scenes before it.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Order of the Silver Serpent probably like to think of themselves as this.
  • Badass Biker: The Girl hitches a ride on her motorcycle in a few scenes and often rescues Corso on one or transports him to specific locations.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Even after fighting off two of Liana Telfer's henchmen, Corso and The Girl manage to walk away alive with just a bloody nose, a concussion, scratches, and some broken glasses.
  • Big Applesauce: Notoriously, the movie begins in New York City (replacing Madrid in the novel) in spite of the fact that Polanski couldn't shoot there. For this reason, almost all NYC scenes were filmed in interiors (even street ones) or faked in Paris.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Liana Telfer and the Order of the Silver Serpent seem to be behind the murders and trying to summon Satan for most of the movie, but turn out to be just fanboys of the book who read it as an excuse to have group sex. Boris Balkan has no trouble walking into their lair during a ceremony, killing their leader, and sending them away screaming after a short "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Bloody Handprint: After rescuing Corso, the Girl leaves this upon Corso's face (in the eerie shape of a trident) after wiping her nose and stares at Corso. He is visibly shaken after this and demands to know what's going on.
  • Butter Face: During sex with Corso outside the burning castle, The Girl has an attractive body but her face disturbingly morphs into that of an old man's with a sinister smile (quite possibly Satan herself), frightening Corso.
  • Captain Obvious: Whenever Corso tries to get more information out of the Girl, she unhelpfully states the obvious.
  • Catchphrase: In the movie, when Corso tries to corner the Girl, she often answers "If you say so."
  • Colour Coded Eyes: Corso remarks on the Girl's green eyes, and even calls her "Green Eyes" when she neglects to give her name to him.
  • Composite Character: The film's Balkan is a composite of the book Balkan and another character, Varo Borja. Also, the film's Andrew Telfer is a composite of Enrique Talliefer and Gualterio Terral.
  • Cool Old Guy: Fargas is a very gracious host despite his impoverished nature, collects the old books simply because he likes them rather than out of any satanic beliefs and lets Corso look at his copy without qualms or conditions.
  • Cool Old Lady: Baroness Kessler, a witty, highly knowledgable multiple amputee who is composed and receptive when Corso explains his theory while being stern at the idea of just helping Balkan.
  • Creepy Child: The little girl staring at Corso while he's leaving from the airport qualifies as this.
  • Cultural Translation: The English trailer is fast-paced and highlights the action; the Spanish trailer is slow-paced, plays up the movie's music and fire motif, and mentions that it is based on a novel by Pérez-Reverte (unlike the former).
  • Dead All Along: In the script, the people dismantling the Cenizas' bookstore at the end of the movie claim that they have been dead for years, but the movie cut this out.
  • Deal with the Devil: The point of The Nine Gates is to find a way to summon the Devil and gain power from this trope. A lot of characters want to actually do it.
  • Death by Adaptation: Bernie the bookshop owner is killed early on. His book counterpart, Flavio la Ponte, is a major supporting character and stays very much alive. Also Liana Telfer, her henchman, and Boris Balkan, although it's not really the same character as in the book.
  • The Dragon: The black man to Liana Telfer.
  • Driven to Suicide: Andrew Telfer hangs himself in the first scene of the movie, not long after selling the book to Balkan. We don't get a reason but it's presumably related to the book and the use given to it by his wife.
  • Establishing Character Moment: We're introduced to Dean Corso appraising a book collection for sale, and it's evident that he's lying through his teeth, both to get rare books for himself at a bargain price and to convince the sellers that the other books they have are worth more than they actually are so other collectors will have a harder time buying.
  • Everything Is Trying to Kill You: Corso has to suffer through this, all because of the book he is carrying.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Corso's infatuation with the Girl, who is a tall foreign woman with long blonde hair and striking green eyes.
  • Everybody Smokes: And they do it everywhere, as there is not a "No Smoking" sign in sight. Pointedly subverted by the Baroness: she places value on her collection and reprimands Corso when he lights up in her library and has him put it out.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Liana Telfer tries to buy The Nine Gates back from Corso and suggests faking a theft to cover it up from Balkan. Corso rejects the idea since the book isn't his to sell and he won't be bought off no matter how much she offers.
    • Fargas will show his copy of the book for free despite being poor and the book worth a fortune, but won't sell it and certainly not to Satanists.
  • Eviler than Thou: A major plot element in the film is that two very rich and rather nasty people — a Satanist and a guy who just wants the power — are both after a book believed capable of summoning the devil. Ultimately this leads to an epic scene in which the latter crashes the former's black mass, rants about their buffoonery, kills her in plain sight of the other cultists and ends his rant with a "boo!" which causes them to flee in terror.
    Balkan: Look around, what do you see? A bunch of buffoons in fancy dress. You think the Prince of Darkness would deign to manifest himself before the likes of you? He never has and he never will!
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: Corso takes a ride from a turban-wearing Indian cabbie in New York City.
  • Fade to White: The ending shot of the movie.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The entire scene where Liana Telfer seduces Corso is this, as the very unsettling music plays out as Liana gropes Corso, aggressively kissing him and then tries to kill him when he refuses to tell her where the book is.
    • As the Girl has sex with Corso, she starts off looking very hot, and then her expressions become more deranged until she's actually frightening to behold. Corso's reactions likewise shift from pleasure to horror.
  • Fanservice: The Girl and Corso having sex with their nude bodies in full view.
    • Fanservice Extra: The members of the Silver Serpent cult are naked under their black robes during their rituals. When Balkan makes them flee in terror, several of them (conveniently well-figured women) throw their robes away as they run for their cars.
    • Ms. Fanservice: Liana Telfer, played by Lena Olin, is a trophy wife Gold Digger in her early 40's who is also a member of a Satanic sex club and is not above trading sex for the book she needs in her rituals. Predictably, she has a sex scene and another fully nude scene from the back, and her last appearance in the movie can be seen as a mockery of this trope ( Balkan pushes her dead, virtually nude body away by kicking her in the crotch).
  • Forbidden Fruit: The titular book can unlock the nine gates of Hell and grant whomever activates the ritual properly with extraordinary power. Sooner or later, everyone including Corso wants to get ahold of the book despite its evil.
  • Foreign Correspondent: An American bookseller who doesn't believe in Lucifer travels around Europe to discover a Lucifer-raising cult.
  • Foreign Remake: Subverted. The original novel begins in Madrid and Corso is presumably Spanish. The movie begins in New York City (though given Polanski's notorious legal problems, it had to be faked in Paris) and Corso and several other characters are changed to American or immigrants to America. However, the movie is actually a French-Spanish coproduction that was filmed in English for a wider international release.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In his introductory scene, Corso swindles a rival collector by convincing the owners of a collection that their worthless books are very rare and their valuable books are not worth much, so they sell the latter to Corso. Not entirely unlike how Balkan falls for a fake engraving and Corso finds the real one.
    • As Balkan is explaining Corso's mission to him, he cryptically insists "something's wrong" with his copy of The Nine Gates. Corso quips "you mean the Devil won't show up?" Balkan doesn't laugh. In all likelihood Corso is dead on the money, Balkan probably tried the ritual with his copy and it didn't work.
    • Balkan is rather unbothered by the fact that someone wound up dead as a direct result of Corso's investigation. That he isn't concerned with a murder is our first clue to how ruthless he is including willing to kill himself.
    • When Corso asks the Ceniza brothers if Balkan's copy of The Nine Gates could be a forgery, they shoot down the idea by going into detail about how difficult it would be to forge a book this old, requiring one to get period-accurate paper, inks, typeface, and then bind it all together (again, in a manner accurate to the era) so that an expert and/or rare book collector could not detect the forgery. They conclude "If this is a forgery or a copy with missing pages restored, it's the work of a master." The Ceniza brothers are master antique bookbinders who once owned Balkan's copy of the book, and they just finished describing to Corso exactly how to create a convincing forgery and what materials one would need. And since they only wound up forging a single page, that made it much easier for them.
    • The angel in the first engraving warning the reader of a danger from above looks much like one of the Ceniza brothers. The same who tell Corso that it is such warning. This foreshadows both the fall of the scaffolding (which endangers Corso from above) and the woman in the last engraving looking like The Girl.
    • When Corso meets the Girl again and she accompanies him on his journey, he asks her if she's his guardian angel. She tells him, "Of sorts...". She is also briefly shown levitating midway through the film in a manner that's easy to miss, long before her supernatural nature becomes more obvious.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Possibly doubles as a blooper. While the Girl tells Corso that the reason the ritual failed was because one of the engravings he used was a forgery, specifically the 9th one which the Cenizas had hidden in their shop, pausing the film during the ritual will show that actually there we two fakes laid out on the table. Specifically the 7th engraving which has Torchia's black checkerboard rather than Lucifer's white. It shows Balkan as being no better than the Silver Serpents, a blind and ignorant follower of the devil. Throughout the movie he pretty much relies solely on Corso, who is implied to actually be Luficer in both the film and book, to do all the investigative work for him and even armed with all that knowledge, he bungles the ritual by failing to notice such an obvious fake sitting right in front of him. That or Polanski just couldn't be bothered to use the correct engravings for a shot that amounts to less than five seconds.
  • Friendless Background: Balkan and Corso both have few friends due to their shady natures, and aren't terribly upset by this.
    Balkan: Our relationships have always been strictly commercial, and that's the way I like it.
  • Gainax Ending: After Corso kills Balkan when his rituals fails, he goes outside to smoke in his car as the castle burns. The Girl appears in the car, kisses Corso, and the scene cuts to the two of them having sex on the grass, during which the Girl almost seems to transform and Corso is frightened by what he sees. The next morning the two are driving down the highway and the Girl explains Balkan's ritual failed because one of the engravings was fake, and Corso wants the real one. When they stop for gas she vanishes, but leaves a clue to the location of the real engraving. Corso returns to the home of the Ceniza brothers and finds their shop being cleared out and the brothers mysterious vanished, and he discovers the true engraving, showing the Girl riding a seven-headed dragon before a castle with the sun shining from behind it. Corso returns to the castle and the doors open to welcome him, light shining beyond them, and then it fades to the credits.
  • Glowing Eyes: The Girl's eyes noticeably glow on several occasions. Given that she is quite possibly the Devil this may count as Glowing Eyes of Doom.
  • Gold Digger: Despite her aristocratic background, Liana Telfer was in hard times when she married the late Andrew, and wants The Nine Gates purely because she thinks of it as a bringer of material wealth.
  • He Knows Too Much: Nearly everyone Corso has come in contact with regarding the book has turned up dead. Even as Corso's own knowledge and curiosity of the book deepens, people attempting to steal the book are trying to kill him as well.
  • Hell Hound: One of Corso's creepy visions is a large black guard dog silently watching him after Baroness Kessler is murdered.
  • Hot as Hell: The Girl is heavily implied to be the Devil, and is extremely attractive.
  • Hypocritical Humor: A colleague calling Corso thoroughly unscrupulous after being beaten to a collection.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: It might be the case with Corso and The Girl, who still follows after her even after learning she is not only a man in her true form but also probably the Devil.
  • Impoverished Patrician:
    • Victor Fargas is a proud and elegant man whose possessions are all expensive and fancy. However, as he freely admits, he doesn't have many of those possessions left (e.g. owning only a single set of wine glasses). His house also lacks any servants, and he's sold over a fifth of his proud library of rare books (which he calls his only reason for living) to pay the taxes on the mansion that he's too proud and sentimental to sell.
    Fargas: [O]ld families are like old civilizations, they wither and die.
    • Liana Telfer married Andrew as a way out of her ruined French aristocrat family.
  • Louis Cypher: The real engravings are signed LCF.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: In the struggle against Telfer's henchmen, Corso snags one shoe as they escape.
  • Man on Fire: After performing the ritual, Balkan claims to feel no pain from the flames and doses himself on fuel. He continues to claim no pain until he is completely engulfed by the fire, at which point he starts screaming.
  • Master Forger: Double Subverted when Corso has to investigate whether a copy of an extremely rare book (which, according to legend, will allow the person who deciphers it to summon the Devil) is legitimate or a forgery. When he discusses the possibility of it being a forgery with the Ceniza twins (a pair of master bookbinders that once owned that copy of the book), they dismiss the possibility of it being a fake. They explain that to make a forgery that would fool the experts a forger would need to use all the materials and characteristics that were in use during the 17th century when the book was first printed, including unique inks, paper, leather, typeface, watermarks, etc., which are all extremely difficult to get in the late 20th century. In the end the book turns out to be legitimate, but a single critical page has been replaced with a fake to throw off the people trying to decipher the puzzle of the book. And who better to do that than a certain pair of master bookbinders who had the book in their possession for years?
    Ceniza Brother: If this is a forgery or a copy with missing pages restored, it's the work of a master.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Corso's name is etymologically related to "corsair", sitting well with him being a duplicitous mercenary and treasure hunter. In the novel, his first name was Lucas.
      • Discussed when he tells "Green-Eyes" that Corso means "run" in Italian, and she comments that he doesn't look like a runner to her.
    • Liana Telfer was named Liana Taillefer in the novel, after a famous Norman jester. Predictably, she's pretty much a buffoon and a Red Herring to the actual threats of Balkan and (implicitly) The Girl.
    • The Ceniza brothers, in the script at least. A deleted line claims that the Cenizas have been dead for years when Corso returns to their bookstore. Ceniza means "ash" in Spanish. In other words the Cenizas are servants of Hell, "fire", and crumble to dust after Corso interacts with them. One of the Cenizas also throws ash on Balkan's copy of the book when first shown it.
  • Mercy Kill: After Balkan's Deal with the Devil goes horribly wrong and he catches on fire, burning to death, Corso shoots him to put him out of his misery.
  • Mark of the Beast: When making out with Corso, Liana Telfer is shown to have this tattooed on her thigh in the form of a serpent.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Mostly the theme fitting into some parts of the film. In one scene, Corso is almost crushed by a construction site railing and nothing is even there. In contrast to almost everything trying to kill Corso, we almost never get to see who or what is after him. Then when Corso checks on the bookshop to look for Bernie, Corso is shocked by what he finds and then it shows Bernie's death entirely. Then there's the Mind Screw ending...
  • No Name Given:
    • The Girl has no name given and refuses to give it when Corso asks, so he dubs her "Green Eyes", though he then never calls her that.
    • The black man is never named in the movie, though he plays the part of Rochefort in the book.
  • Number of the Beast: Balkan has the largest collection in the world of books about the Devil. Guess what the password to his library is? Also, the author of the book he's seeking, who supposedly summoned the Devil, published it and was burned along with all of his works, except for three books, in 1666.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: The gatherings of the Order of the Silver Serpent have degenerated over the centuries into an excuse to have sex under the pretense of worshipping the Devil, according to both Kessler and Balkan.
  • Power Floats: The Girl is twice shown levitating or floating down from high places, a hint to her supernatural nature.
  • Pretender Diss: Kessler and Balkan are openly contemptuous of Liana and her associates, for basing their Devil worship around the idea that it gives them wealth rather than anything deeper.
  • Product Placement: Several examples, but most notably when Corso is getting gas, he deliberately twists the nozzle so the Shell logo directly faces the camera.
  • Race Lift: Rochefort, an Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette Slav in the book, becomes an unnamed bleach blond black man.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Balkan gives one to Liana and her followers.
    Balkan: As for you, Liana de Saint-Martin, you're even guiltier than the rest of this pathetic rabble. You have at least some idea of what this book can do in the right hands, yet you lend yourself to these farcical proceedings, these orgies of aging flesh conducted in the Master's name. You're a charlatan!
  • Red Herring: Liana Telfer and the Silver Serpent cult, while not entirely harmless, are innocent of most crimes in the movie and easily neutralized.
  • Scary Black Man: Liana Telfer's bodyguard, enforcer, and implied lover is the only black character in the movie.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: As Liana seduces Corso, the camera zooms in on the serpent tattoo on her thigh and then cuts to black. By the next scene, Liana and Corso are both sweaty and exhausted from sex and she demands to know where the book is.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The Ceniza Brothers tell Corso that forging or restoring an antique book with intent to sell it is impractical and explain why in detail — forging an antique book well enough to fool the types of collectors who would be willing to pay thousands for it is very difficult, requiring period-accurate materials and manufacturing methods, and a very good eye for detail. And even if you pull off a passable forgery, those kinds of books are going to have their owner histories known by collectors, and questions will be asked about how you acquired your copy and who owned it before you.
    • The Nine Gates aside, all books referenced in the movie are real.
  • Sidekick Ex Machina: The Girl, who is always there just in time to extricate or save Corso.
  • Significant Double Casting: José López Rodero plays the two Ceniza brothers and the two workmen dismantling their shop later on.
  • Smooch of Victory: More like Nookie of Victory — after Corso shoots Balkan and stops the ritual, the Girl appears in his car and gives him a kiss that very quickly escalates to them having sex.
  • Starts with a Suicide: The film begins with Andrew Telfer hanging himself in his library.
  • Tap on the Head: Corso is knocked out twice with a single hit to the head, with no ill effects besides being, well, passed out for a while.
  • Tarot Motifs: The film relates several characters to Tarot imagery and symbolism, though a lot of it is implicit and not direct. The two most obvious instances are one of the engravings showing someone hung by the foot identical to The Hanged Man, and the climax is very evocative of The Tower, as a castle that is set on fire after Balkan fails to summon The Devil.
  • Title Drop: Even though "The Nine Gates etc..." are often referred to, you need to wait for the end, to hear Balkan mention "unlocking The Ninth Gate" during his ceremony.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: The deceased elderly Andrew Telfer and his younger, beautiful widow, Liana Telfer.
  • Unusual Euphemism: At one point, Liana tells Corso "Don't fuck with me!," to which he responds, "I thought I just did." The TV edit changes "fuck" to "mess", making Corso's response unintentionally bizarre.
  • The Vamp: Liana, who is willing to seduce Corso just to get the book.
  • Wham Shot: After recovering the last engraving, Corso examines it. It depicts the Girl riding nude atop a seven-headed beast in front of a castle with the sun shining from behind one of its turrets (rather than being in flames) — the same castle that Corso and the Girl had sex in front the previous night.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Ceniza brothers are missing when Corso revisits their shop. It isn't even hinted or implied if they died somehow, they're just gone. Possibly it indicates they too were supernatural somehow.
  • Where da White Women At?: Corso accuses Liana Telfer of sleeping with her black bodyguard while her late husband was alive. Given that both are members of a Satanic sex club and said husband was completely in the dark about its existence, it isn't exactly a stretch.