This film sees Roman Polanski’s returning to the subject of Satanism minus his famed servings of masterful suspense. The events revolve around an antique books dealer who enters the underworld of book collectors seemingly only for the purpose of unscrupulous greed. The hook revolves around three surviving copies of a text alleged to be written by Satan in 1666 (yawn?). The text contains a sequence of puzzles that help summon the Devil and grant the conjuror either immortality or annihilation depending upon the veracity of—and successful—incantation of the hexes inked within its pages. Each surviving copy is in the possession of a different but eccentric owner, we’ll soon learn. That latter trait is a deliberate prerequisite exploited for satirical purposes as the bookworms are spoofed for both their bibliophilia and a satanic proclivity reserved for the corrupt and wealthy. And as far as rumored legend goes, the books have never been seen in the same room since they were co-authored with the Devil in 1666. It is now the year 1999 (notice the inverse symbolism) but who owns the authentic copy, if any exists?
For Dean Corso (Depp), there is no motive besides monetary reward. Sure, gratification might be delayed but only insofar as contractual payments are deferred. So, it is not the pursuit of knowledge, despite the phenomenon of hoarding and constant acquisition finding itself in the film’s crosshairs of mockery. The motive is not the love of the game, either: the craftsmanship involved in authenticating originals and exposing replicas. Only the hunt for rare tomes and underestimating valuations to reap the largest profit margin. Nor can his motive be found in the promise of bottomless riches and infinite prestige upon allying with Satan. In fact, Corso did want out upon the first sign of trouble (a homicide) and nearly turned his cab around to miss a flight out of New York to Europe, where the entirety of his troubles would mount.
There, we get a glimpse of the books’ content, largely, the illustrated pages which prove symbolic of the stray bullets that graze Corso and lodge themselves in those in his vicinity. Corso’s journey is foreshadowed in these drawings, and the close encounters that brush him and befall bystanders serve as warning signs. There are nine illustrations per print, each with a minor alteration which negates authenticity, as no book can now be declared an original on its own; only as a composite. But the sketches also serve as haunting premonitions of the possible permutations (twenty-seven in total) with the authentic outcome ultimately reenacted.
The films is an eye-catching blend of noir, mystery, horror and satire, and the failure to execute each genre’s nuances with precision should not be held against Polanski. The entire plot resembles that of a noir’s albeit Corso’s mannerism and the tone fall within the satirical territory. Shades of The Omen emerge from the brushstrokes, for example, which is what it aspires to invoke onto to resemble a Final Destination prototype. And once we strip the film of its superficial satanic iconography, most of what remains is barren of any intellectual heft. It is worth mentioning that only the directing acumen prevents the film from fully collapsing onto itself. Comedy and intrigue interject a divisive turn by Depp which somehow kept me hooked despite Polanski’s best efforts to frustrate me, at times, and undermine Depp, at others.
The mysterious, unnamed Girl (played by Polanski’s real wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) served as the perfect lure, despite a stifled sex appeal and woeful charismatic deficiency. Though grievously underdressed for a European woman, her presence vacillates between subterfuge and intrigue to keep one’s eyes on the screen when she is in a scene. If only to see what resolution would come of this mess. Alas, Corso’s clear motive to push on toward the ninth gate would not be made clear but he walks through the doorway anyway, because why retreat now after all that he’s gone through?
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.