A London Film Festival review of THE MONK/LA MOINE by Timothy E. RAW
French superstar Vincent Cassel stars as a Monk getting hot under the collar in the new film from director Dominik Moll (Harry, He's Here to Help, Lemming). This existential journey of a soul in torment is an adaptation of Mathew Lewis' gothic novel The Monk, first adapted to film in 1972 by Ado Kyrou and working from an earlier script by the godfather of surrealism, Luis Buñuel, who together with Jean-Claude Carrière had attempted to film a version of The Monk in the 1960s but abandoned the project due to lack of funds. I must confess to not having seen the 1972 iteration, but for better or worse, French-German director Moll's take on the material feels very much of the same era, its surrealist leanings vacillating between the measured sobriety of Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the freewheeling Midnight Madness of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo.
Ambrosio is a devout Monk whose faith appears to be on shaky ground from the moment we meet him. Hearing an abusive uncle's uncontrite confession of incest and sexual debasement, Ambrosio's face is a rictus of disgust and arousal. His repugnance might just as well be aimed inwards at the lustful libertine trying to claw his way out. The sickening acts described stir illicit feelings in Ambrosio and cast a premonitory pallor over the rest of the picture.
Possessed of a faith so alive that his intensity at the altar induces a young girl to faint, Ambrosio's pulpit teachings immediately ring hollow in light of the emblematic uncertainty of our initial encounter. Held in fearful reverence by the congregation and the monks who raised him ever since he was abandoned on their doorstep as a child, director Moll's undertaking is to expose this hoax and root out by painful metaphysical means, the hypocrisy of Ambriosio's zealotry.
Plagued daily by headaches and elliptical nightmare visions of a desert landscape stalked by a woman in red (one can't help but be reminded of the films of Tarsem Singh – never a good thing) the manifestation of Ambrosio's conflicted subconscious arrives in the form of Valerio, a 'novice' whose burned face is obscured by a mask, which protects from sunlight. Allegedly seeking to get closer to God under Ambrosio's guise, the swellheaded monk's own mask of virtuous faultlessness begins to slip when he welcomes Valerio into the order despite the qualms of his brothers. The mentor's piousness is outmatched only by his pride, which anticipates the giddy height of his fall.
The decidedness of his instruction – that Valerio should yearn for punishment instead of fleeing it – serves as Ambrosio's own confession of the narrowness of his life experience within the cloistered walls of the abby. Iris in/iris out scene transitions, though a touch anachronistic, let us feel those walls moving in still closer, and Moll compounds the sense of entrapment by restricting the radius of the camera movement and shooting Cassel in candle-lit close ups, a disembodied head affronted by shadow.
It's not by accident that Ambrosio looks decapitated at times, for his head is most definitely on the chopping block. When Valerio is revealed as a she-devil temptress of the flesh, Ambrosio is forced to face feelings he has up till now kept tenuously in check. As in The Page Turner/La tourneuse de pages before this, Déborah François perfectly embodies a certain kind of glacial sexuality, thawing the chains of everything Ambrosio has psychologically locked away. The monk's liberation comes at a price, however, for their union is but a priapic taunt, which turns master towards violent, bestial servitude. In this respect, Moll's major Gothic touchstone outside of the work he has adapted is clearly Bronte's Jane Eyre, only this time the unkempt madwoman has been set loose from the attic-prison of Ambriosio's subconscious and will not be contained.
As Ambrosio struggles to regain control of his uncorked sexual avariciousness, so to does the director wrestle to grasp the reigns of his film. Moll's previous works show him to be a master of impeccably made, chilly psychodramas whose fierce modernity demands a drip-feed turning of screws. That same restraint does not belong in period gothic. Never overwrought or ripe enough, I always wanted The Monk to rip more. Painterly when it needs to be blood-soaked, morose when it needs to be manic, its pretensions to Freudian psychological veracity find it lacking in the capricious camp so needed to foreground its perversities. This non-committal stance on establishing tone is an example of a previously exacting director getting carried away with the visceral satisfaction of the surreal. Where before it peppered his stories to unsettling effect, here Moll's inexplicable imagery is never as indelible as it ought to be, perhaps because so much of it feels borrowed, or worse cliché. What was fresh in 1972 is questionably lazy in 2011. Gothic you can set your watch by (ravens, gargoyles, candles blazing like fires as tongues trace bodily contours) is fine so long as its inherent absurdity is acknowledged, but The Monk is too stately for that. Though in the same breath it must also be acknowledged that by compounding these clichés, Moll delivers at least one image of mystifying allure: a candle-burning, poison-sucking sex scene features an obscure superimposition of a faceless gargoyle, which the director was kind enough to explain in our interview.
Vincent Cassel is an eyebrow-raising choice to play a pious Monk, by simple virtue of the fact that the actor positively reeks of sin – I'm immediately reminded of his polar-opposite performance as a demented envoy-of-Satan hillbilly in Satan/Sheitan. It's not just for the ambiguity of The Monk's opening prelude, but also the dangerous virility of its star's filmography, that expectations are hinged on such a straightjacketed performance finally erupting with killer instinct. Yet to his credit, Cassel is surprisingly reserved throughout, never moving far beyond expressions of thinly veiled terror. Thoroughly embracing his against-type-casting, the actor latches on to the high-minded loose end of Moll's wavering intentions, driving home the film's more insoluble elements and striking an authentic tone that the end product can't lay claim to.
As a huge fan of Dominik Moll, I was initially stymied by his choice of material this time around, but The Monk's visual richness still wins out – Moll can thank the ballast provided by Cassel and François for helping him navigate the choppy period seas to shore, and the uneasy blend of styles still manages to excite even if it fails to get under the skin.
Video interview: DOMINIK MOLL
This exclusive interview was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at Soho House in London on Tuesday 21st October 2011.
The Monk screened Sunday 23rd October 2011 at 5.30pm as part of the 55th London Film Festival.
Our thanks to Chris Boyd from Metrodome for his help in arranging this interview.