The cinematic opus of Roman Polanski is one of the best and most important ones in the history of cinema. The Polish director’s career has been marked by controversy but that is really not relevant for our article, which is why we are going to focus on the movies and not the director’s life.
Roman Polanski is, without a doubt, a visionary filmmaker and he has given us several movies that have already become a part of film history.
The Pianist or Rosemary’s Baby are among Polanski’s best works but the guy has filmed more than 20 movies, most of which are, in the worst-case scenario, good, if not great. Polanski’s somewhat unique and quirky in his approach to cinema, preferring bizarre and strange stories that often blur the boundaries between fiction and reality.
The Ninth Gate is one such movie and although it might not be one of Polanski’s best works, it is certainly one of his most intriguing ones.
What Is The Ninth Gate All About?
The elderly Mr. Telfer writes a suicide note before hanging himself. The day before, he had sold a valuable book to a collector of occult books, Boris Balkan (Frank Langella). The book is considered to have been written by the fictional Torchia in the 17th century.
Legend has it that this Torchia made a covenant with the devil himself. Therefore, he was burned alive at the stake along with all copies of the book in 1666, except for the three that are considered to remain today. Dean Corso goes to search for the copies, encountering strange phenomena along the way.
Analyzing The Ninth Gate
Now, The Ninth Gate does a relatively good job in explaining its own intricacies throughout the movie, so you actually get to understand most of the things in the movie, including the literary, historical, religious, and satanic references. The Ninth Gate is a supernatural mystery that is better in its execution, than its closure, although the execution is also deeply flawed at times.
Now, while writing this article, we were wondering how to approach the analysis and we deduced that, since the movie does most of the work for us, it would be best for us to simply explain the symbolism behind the Nine Gates in the movie before we continue with the ending of the movie.
The main focus of the film is a fictional book titled The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which is said to contain a ritual for summoning Satan. Three variants of the ancient book exist. Each book contains nine engravings. Three different engravings in each of the three books are signed LCF for Lucifer. Six are signed AT for Aristidem Torchiam, the author of the fictional book.
One engraving signed LCF is a forgery. The nine LCF engravings show the path into or out of the realm of shadows. The differences in the symbolism between the AT and LCF images decipher the underlying story. We shall now present these differences:
|1st Gate||A knight on horseback holds a finger to his lips signaling silence or secrecy.||The knight sees a castle with three towers.||The knight sees a castle with four towers.||The castle in the distance represents the destination. The number four symbolizes the material world. The number three represents perfection. The goal for one will be material for the other it will be spiritual.|
|2nd Gate||A hermit-looking bearded man with a pair of keys in his handstands at the door, with a knocker, latched closed. He is accompanied by a dog, with the Hebrew symbol for nine behind him and a burning lantern at his feet.||The man holds keys in his left hand.||The man holds keys in his right hand.||A pair of keys reflect a different light, one of emotional warmth and wealth, the other of spiritual purity and enlightenment. The right hand represents the familiar material world, the left hand represents the unconscious or unknown world.|
|3rd Gate||A pilgrim on his path encounters a towered bridge crossing a river. A cherub in the clouds, with a quiver, slung over his shoulder, aims his bow and arrow down on the path leading up to the near side of the bridge.||There are two arrows, one in the bow and another in the quiver.||There is only one arrow in the bow and none in the quiver.||We see one arrow pointing down to earth and the other, in the quiver, pointing upwards. This is yet another symbol of duality.|
|4th Gate||A jester-looking character stands before a maze in a fool’s twin-peaked hat.||The maze’s exit is open.||The maze’s exit archway is bricked up.||The dice suggest that chance will yield very different outcomes: a dead-end for one and an opportunity for another.|
|5th Gate||An old man, seated, counts out gold. They are inside a castle-like room, foreshadowing the destination. He is being watched over by a cloaked skeleton with an hourglass and a trident.||The sands of time have run out.||The hourglass sands are only just starting to flow.||The cloaked figure represents both death and the devil. The image strongly suggests that gathering material riches is useless.|
|6th Gate||A man is hanging from the castle walls, upside down, from one leg.||The man is hanging from his left foot.||The man is hanging from his right foot.||For the material acquisitive right-thinking person, there are obvious burning swords and hanging references. For the left-minded spiritual folk, there are promises of torch light to show the way to the other side of the wall.|
|7th Gate||A bearded crowned king is playing chess in a castle-like room with a young man dressed as a peasant. The door is closed and a crescent moon shines in through an open window. Two dogs, one white and one black, seem to be fighting in the background.||The chessboard is white.||The chessboard is black.||A mere mortal has become the King’s equal. Man is his master’s equal, therefore Man is god.|
|8th Gate||A young man kneeling in prayer. A knight is standing over him with a mace||There is a halo around the head of the knight.||There is no halo around the head of the knight.||The meaning of this engraving remains unclear even now.|
|9th Gate||A castle is in the background. In the foreground, a naked woman with an open book is seated on a seven-headed dragon-like creature.||Seemingly no difference between the pictures.||Seemingly no difference between the pictures.||The final sexual temptation the pilgrim will encounter on his journey.|
And there you have it. This is the most important segment of the movie and knowing that, we can continue with the ending of the movie.
The Ninth Gate Ending Explained
The ending of The Ninth Gate is, despite all the elements we have analyzed so far, usually the most confusing moment in the whole film, and seeing how bizarre it is, that doesn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Polanski changed some things from the original novel. The ending of the movie did contain some elements from the book but it was ultimately original.
This wouldn’t be an issue per se, but since it’s quite out of context and without any proper explanations, you have to wonder what was going through the writers’ heads when they adapted Club Dumas for the screen.
The original book ending was bizarre as well, but the plot actually led us to it. Here, we were also led to the ending, but that ending wasn’t even close to making any proper sense in the context of the movie. So, how does the movie end?
Liana ends up stealing the Balkan copy in Corso’s hotel room; the latter follows her and sees her using the book in a satanic ceremony. Balkan suddenly interrupts the ceremony, strangles Liana, and leaves with the engraved pages and her copy intact; Corso tried to intervene, but the young woman following him stopped him.
Corso follows Balkan to a distant castle, depicted on one of the engravings; he finds Balkan preparing the final ritual. After a fight, Balkan traps Corso in a hole in the ground, then performs his invocation ritual: he places the engravings on a makeshift altar and recites a series of sentences related to each of the nine engravings.
Balkan then sprays himself with gasoline and lights it, believing himself safe from suffering. Balkan’s summoning fails and he screams in pain as the flames engulf him. Corso frees himself, shoots Balkan to end his suffering, takes the engravings, and escapes.
Outside, the young Girl reappears and makes love to him in front of the burning castle; her eyes and face seeming to change as she twists over Corso. She tells him that Balkan failed because the ninth engraving he used was a forgery.
Before leaving Corso, she left him a message about the ninth engraving, which forces him to return to the Ceniza brothers. He finds their store completely abandoned and finds the real ninth engraving there. On it, the woman riding a multi-headed beast, the Prostitute of Babylon, bears a certain resemblance to her stranger.
With the last engraving in hand, Corso returns to the castle. He completes the ritual and walks through the ninth door into the light.
The great critic Roger Ebert said that when he finished this movie (ultimately giving it two stars out of four), he underlined the word “What?” in his notes. And that is a perfect way to sum up the movie’s ending. The ending of The Ninth Gate was quite confusing. It would have been confusing if the movie ended with Corso finding the original engraving but Polanski decided to go even further.
Now, the movie is a big enigma, that much is clear. But the thing with The Ninth Gate is that you actually see Corso as someone who fights these dark forces that are surrounding him. Balkan is the villain in the movie, not Corso. Corso seems to be that hard-boiled investigator who lingers near the darkness but doesn’t really jump into it.
Johnny Depp was a somewhat perfect pick for the role, as the brooding personality of the main character perfectly fit his layered acting style. The main issue was that after everything had been solved and settled, you’d expect a solemn, even perhaps ambiguous ending, if not a happy one. But, as you can see, that never happened.
In the end, Dean Corso foes through the ritual he desperately wanted to stop and disappeared in the light of the dark enlightenment. What’s the point? Well, narratively, there’s not much to the ending, as it seems alien to the whole movie and the book itself; the book ends with the ritual going awry and Corso leaving.
Here, he returns to go through the dreaded Ninth Gate, thereby ruining the whole movie (if it had not been ruined by that point, already).
I remember, when I first watched the movie, that the atmosphere was just amazing and that despite all of the bizarre elements, the plot was solid for the most part, until that orgy-like ending with Frank Langella’s character and the completely incomprehensible final scene.
You’d think this was a Lovecraft story where the main character fights against the madness of the Great Old Ones, only to succumb to it in the end, powerless against the powers he had been dealing with the whole time.
But where Lovecraft always foreshadows such an ending, indicating in his stories that any resistance to the mesmerizing dread of his monstrous deities is absolutely useless, Polanski seemed to show us that the fight made sense and that evil ultimately ends up being punished. And that made sense until we saw Corso go through the gate.
Why did it happen like that? We’ll probably never know because no one really talks about the movie anymore but what we can deduce is that Polanski opted for a twist ending, but the twist wasn’t all that original, as we saw it happen.
Namely, the power of the darkness seemed to be too strong to resist and the temptation of the Ninth Gate that had engulfed Balkan just passed on to Corso.
That is what the unseen villain of this movie wanted and it seemed that Corso’s journey wasn’t that of a fight against evil, but a journey that led him to become the evil he was supposed to fight.
In the end, Corso just succumbed to the dark magic, opting to satisfy his curiosity despite being aware of the dangers. There is no other explanation that would make sense, as nothing in the movie indicates that there might be some other reason.
In fact, even this ending doesn’t really make sense if you watch the movie, but it is what it is. Roger Ebert was confused, so it’s no wonder that we, mere mortals, ended up being confused as well.
But that’s the magic of this movie – it leads you through a story that doesn’t make sense in the end; the journey is good for the most part, even great at times, but when you come to the goal, all you’re left with is confusion and a lingering feeling of disappointment akin to what Balkan must have felt when he knew his ritual was backfiring.