Satanic verses

Film - Jonathan Romney is led up the brimstone path by a devilish Polanski

The Devil may have all the best tunes, but he isn't always so lucky when it comes to film scripts. Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate could be fairly described as creaky, and yet, inept and archaic as the film seems, you feel that Polanski knows it perfectly well, and is simply mocking our indulgence.

Polanski's work over the past few years has generally lacked conviction, as if he were half-heartedly cooling his heels in Europe while regretting the chances missed as an exile from Hollywood. Frantic (1988) was by-the-book, cod Hitchcock; Death and the Maiden (1994) was a prosaic adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's chamber drama. In between, however, he made one remarkable film - Bitter Moon (1992), a moral tale of sexual obsession, the self-mocking subtleties of which were on the whole grievously misunderstood (I saw it with an audience that tittered from start to finish).

It seems futile for Polanski to engage with the Devil again, since he spun his definitive satanic tale Rosemary's Baby (1968), which, with its rich dream content of psychosexual and bodily anxieties, evoked the possibility of knowing the Devil from the inside. A glib, debased take on the same theme, The Ninth Gate is a strictly external quest, a detective story about book-learning; it might as well be about searching telephone directories for Old Nick's private number.

Based on a novel by Arturo Perez Reverte, the story has Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) tracking down variant copies of a grimoire for a powerful collector. He goes shuttling around Europe: to a leafy, antique corner of Portugal; to a semi-medieval Madrid; and to a France where the cafes have lace curtains and jaunty accordion music. Polanski's New York is no more real, its cramped brownstone apartments and basement bookshops echoing the 1940s and 1950s horror films of Jacques Tourneur - notably Night of the Demon, another bibliophile tale of doom and dusty shelves.

The Ninth Gate constantly signals its borrowings, with its Bondish globe-trotting, Chandleresque legwork, and Mickey Spillane sleaziness. Lena Olin is a lingerie-flashing femme fatale; Emmanuelle Seigner (aka Mme Polanski) is a mystery woman, constantly flitting in and out. There are some fruity villains: Barbara Jefford has a rare old time as a posh German satanist, and Frank Langella, in Billy Bunter specs and Tom Baker's booming voice, rounds it all off by yelling: "Yes! Yes! The enigma is solved at last!" This is by no means an atypical line in the script, yet there's something heartening about the level of cliche. Who wouldn't feel a warm glow at the line, "Coincidences, or something more?"? The film appears utterly foolish, yet Polanski is certainly no fool. The accumulation of cliches gives the film a peculiar dream quality. The story follows a false trail within a hermetic world that seems to shrink the further its hero travels; the outcome is grandiose bathos, after which Seigner smirks into the camera as if to say that she and Polanski have put one over on us again. As in Bitter Moon, Polanski wants to take us for a ride, but here he underestimates our intelligence. We're usually several steps ahead of Corso; we see through the wilfully thin architecture too soon.

What is most striking about The Ninth Gate is its curious nostalgia - this is perhaps the first film of the 2000s to hark back to the possibilities of 20th-century storytelling. For who now cares a damn about Satan, that discredited, posturing melodrama villain? And, in the internet age, who could be impressed by a story about books? Everything seems an echo of once-resonant narrative gambits. The Ninth Gate is a cynical, hollow film about its own cynical hollowness.

Admittedly, it has certain more straightforward qualities. If for no other reason, you might want to see it for the contribution of Darius Khondji, a French cinematographer capable of burnishing the tawdriest material (Evita, In Dreams) as well as the best (Seven). Khondji here favours mildewed greens and golds, as well as the odd strident red. He shoots a wonderfully ominous early scene in Langella's modernist mausoleum of a library overlooking Manhattan at night; there is a startling attention to sound here, too, with the rasp of hushed voices against the rustle of old paper.

This scene, rich in narrative promise, reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Both films are shaggy-dog stories about quests that cannot be fulfilled, including the viewer's own quest for a satisfying narrative conclusion. Yet for all its flaws and inconsistencies, Kubrick's film genuinely perplexes and fascinates: it has a real subject, as well as faith in its ramifications.

Polanski's film, however, is finally a game with no real stakes, designed purely to prove that the director is diabolically adept at spinning narrative webs with no centre and no end. It may be a gem for connoisseurs of Flawed Cinema, that damned genre, but fascinating flaws are rarely enough. The Ninth Gate wants to lead us a merry dance up the brimstone path, but a long, arduous crawl it proves to be.

The Ninth Gate is on general release from 2 June

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness