Monday, November 29, 2004

Nothing is more reliable than a man whose loyalties can be bought with hard cash

[november 28, 2004]

Ever since his exile from the US of A to escape the charges of molestation, Roman Polanski has been an interesting case study in constrained filmmaking. The occasional need to find alternatives would almost liken him to Orson Welles, who would take up acting assignments and the like to be able to fund portions of his movies, scenes of which were often conceived and filmed based on where Welles was at the time, and the resources he had at his disposal. Polanski seems to be doing better than Welles, though, because each film he has made since he fled has garnered just about as much media attention as it would have had he still been in the US of A. While The Pianist was Polanski's way of dealing with the demons of his past (call it his Schindler's List if you like, but shorn of the schmaltz and comfortable grief that Spielberg showers his films with), The Ninth Gate takes him (and viewers) back to the creepy classic Rosemary's Baby. Johnny Depp wonderfully goes through the motions of his character with the ease that you have come to expect of him. The film's narrative is not very complex, and the denouement was a tad unsatisfying. Yet, there was enough there to keep me from doubting Polanski's ability to deliver the goods. A curious thing about the DVD: there were no subtitles, but it came with a director's commentary track. Quite unsettling and inconvenient. Onward to a mix of personal notes based on the film and the commentary:

* The pre-credit sequence is a classic mix of stretched tension, economy of speech (in fact, nothing is spoken at all) and attention to detail: when a part of the chandelier comes loose to shower some plaster onto the floor, you almost expect the suicide attempt to fail.

* The opening credits play against the first-person journery of the camera through nine gates. They appear just like streetlights and signs on road dividers, except at a much slower rate. The title of the film appears last, just before the ninth gate. The gate then opens up to a flash of light that fades into a view of a city skyline, which, as the camera pulls back, turns out to be a view from a window.

* As Bernie makes an appreciative comment about the copy of The Nine Gates, the camera pulls away slowly from his left to draw our attention to the window behind him (this is a basement room, so the window looks out on the street), where, in focus, we see a pair of feet clad in formal shoes (with formal pants to match) walking away to the left of the screen; a cigarette falls, and just as we see some smoke rise from the lit end, a pair of sneakers (matched with a pair of blue jeans) appears from the right, the cigarette is squashed, and this pair of feet follows the first one.

* The driver of the cab is a Sardarji, who has to mouth a lot of useless lines including the irritatingly repetitive "no problem, sir" (wonder if Polanski hated NY cabbies ...)

* Kilar's score is nicely creepy and even features a motif that sounds so familiar I wonder if Sandeep Chowta had ever discovered and filched it.

* There's a nice edit cut matching the flick of a switch to turn on the lights in a café that Depp's character is waiting in to shake off a tail

* The last credit in the acknowledgements section of the end credits reads: "intellectual properties management, atlanta, georgia as exclusive licensor of the king estate". An explanation of this is welcome.

* The film was shot on location in France, Portugal, Spain and at Studios d'Epinay, Paris.

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