DIR: Dominik Moll • ED: Francois Gedigier, Sylvie Lager • DOP: Patrick Blossier • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy, Sergi Lopez, Geraldine Chaplin
An adaptation of Matthew Lewis novel written in 1796, The Monk is a gothic drama with Shakespearean tragedy elements scattered all over it. The Monk looks at the life of Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) who, after being left on the steps of a Capuchin monastery in Madrid as a baby, has grown up to be a monk, feared and revered for the intensity of his religious speeches and his morality. However, gradually Ambrosio starts to have troubling dreams about a woman in red, dreams that turn out to be prophetic. A masked young man, Valerio (Deborah Francois), whose face has apparently been destroyed by fire, is taken into the monastery, driven by a desire to be close to Ambrosio. On the night that Ambrosio discovers Valerio’s real identity as woman and before her imminent expulsion from the monastery, the monk is stung by a scorpion. His recovery from this injury is seen by the other monks as a miracle. From this point, Ambrosio’s habits turn distinctly into immoral and degenerating behaviours. Figuring into the story in entirely predictable ways is a subplot concerning the virginal young Antonia (Josephine Japy) and Lorenzo (Frederic Noaille), a nobleman who falls in love with her.
The Monk is about temptations, morality and Faustian symbolism; however the film lacks subtlety. Matthew Lewis’ novel must have appeared sulphurous on its publication in 1796 – apparently it was banned for several years – but for today’s audiences the association of religion, sex and satanism has acquired a dated quality. Moll runs dutifully through the catalogue of gothic symbolism (flames for sexual desire, gargoyles for grinning evil) but might have been better advised to get first a look at films that previously tackled the same issues as for the over-the-top baroque style favoured, for example, by Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).
Vincent Cassel is as usual brilliant and charismatic as monk Ambrosio, succumbing to his own ubris and weaknesses. It is quite interesting to see how brilliantly Cassel decided to undertake a role where for once his physical stage explosivity had to be restrained. Quite remarkable also is his co-star Deborah Francois as Valerio, who drags Ambrosio into the upsetting triangle of sex, Satan and religion.
Widescreen visuals are sumptous, the contrasts between the harsh light of the desert terrain and the darkness of the monastery reflects the moral extremes of Ambrosio, whose face is mostly seen half-shadowed.
A constant element of this film is also an over-use of dreamlike sequences: when for example it clearly borrows from the opening sequence of Blue Velvet (1986) with its use of the camera to burrow into the grass as if going down to uncover an evilish underworld.
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Monk is released on 27th April 2012