The Monk (Le Moine)
Director – Dominik Moll, Screenplay – Dominik Moll & Anne-Louise Trividic, Based on the Novel by M.G. Lewis, Producer – Michel Saint-Jean, Photography – Patrick Blossier, Music – Alberto Iglesias, Digital Effects – Mac Guff Ligne (Supervisor – Martial Vallanchon), Production Design – Antxon Gomez. Production Company – Diaphana Films/Morena Films/El Monje/La Pelicula/AIE/Estrategia Audiovisual/Ricardo Fernandez-Deu/France 3 Cinema/Canal +/France Televisions/Cinecinema/Televisio de Catalunya, S.A./Sofica Coficup/Backup Films/Sofica Soficinema 6/La Banque Postale Image 4/Uni Etoile 8/A Plus Image 2/Eurimages/Centre National de la Cinematografie et de l’Image Animee/La Region Languedoc-Roussillon/ICAA/ICO/MFI/120 Films
Vincent Cassel (Father Ambrosio), Deborah Francois (Valerio), Josephine Japy (Antonia Alijfo), Frederic Noaille (Lorenzo de la Medina), Martine Vandeville (Leonella Alijfo), Roxane Duran (Sister Agnes), Geraldine Chaplin (The Abbess), Sergi Lopez (The Rake), Jordi Dauder (Father Miguel)
16th Century Spain. Father Ambrosio has grown up in a monastery after being found abandoned as a child and adopted by the monks. He has become a strong man of the church who is admired and worshipped by many for his passionate sermons. Because Ambrosio exposes that a nun Sister Agnes has been receiving love letters, she is locked in a cell pregnant where both she and the child die. Ambrosio agrees to accept into the monastery a young postulant Valerio whose body has been ravaged by the plague, which has forced him to hide his face behind a mask. Valerio demonstrates healing powers to Ambrosio but then reveals his secret – that he is really a girl. She pleads with Ambrosio to be allowed to stay. When Ambrosio is bitten by a scorpion, Valerio comes and heals his fever but in so doing seduces him. His lusts awakened, Ambrosio becomes fixated on the beautiful young Antonia.
The Monk (1795) by M.G. Lewis is a classic of the 18th Century Gothic literary movement. Lewis was the son of British Deputy Secretary of War and became a Member of Parliament. The Monk caused a sensation in its day with its outrageous story of a monk’s temptation, its tortured, guilt-ridden Catholicism and fixation on repressed and uncontrollable lusts. The story has been filmed twice before as The Monk (1972), made in France, co-written by no less than Luis Buñuel and featuring Franco Nero as Father Ambrosio – although this version has been little seen – and the Spanish-made English-language The Monk (1990) starring Paul McGann as the priest being seduced by Sophie Ward.
This latest version comes from Dominik Moll, a French director whose name has risen on the arthouse circuit in the last decade. Moll has made a number of fine works, all of which fall within genre lines. Moll’s name took off with the festival hit of his second film, the thriller With a Friend Like Harry/Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000) about a psychopathic childhood friend. Moll followed this with the cryptically baffling identity exchange film Lemming (2005) and subsequently the surreal comedy News from Planet Mars (2016).
Dominik Moll’s taking on The Monk seems a well-suited match. You would have thought that the story’s focus on dark psychological matters and twisted sexual relationships would have fit Moll’s sensibilities like a glove. Only it doesn’t. In fact, Moll appears to have made a conspicuous effort to tame the original story down. The tortured sexuality of the book is all missing – there is only a single hallucinatory shot of Deborah Francois naked and that is about as sordid as it gets. Valerio/Mathilda doesn’t ever seduce Father Ambrosio and there are no rape scenes. All of the monk’s lust seems to be something that is merely talked about and occurs off-screen. This is such a muted version of the book that there is rarely even the sense that the end the story reaches represents the complete and utter desolation of the monk’s soul after being tempted and driven insane by his lusts.
Instead, what we get feels like The Monk mounted as a modern costume drama. Certainly, to this extent, Dominik Moll does a fine job wheeling out the costumery and ritual of the church and staging it all with impressive cinematic flair before the widescreen camera. He adds a maximum number of cuts away to gargoyles and flying buttresses to add brooding Gothic affect. However, in crucially lacking in the tortured sexuality and guilt that fires up the book in insanely lurid ways, this is a version of The Monk that feels watered down for the Academy Award voting crowd. The perfect person for an adaptation of The Monk would surely have been Ken Russell around the point of The Devils (1971) or maybe as one of the 1970s Euro trash fests of director Jesus Franco.
Moreover, the film has scaled M.G. Lewis’s plot down in scale, even though it touches bases with far more of the basics of the book than the 1990 film. The film is much more ambiguous about its fantastic elements than the book – at most, the ghost of Roxane Duran’s dead nun and Vincent Cassel being granted a flower that helps open doors to him. This makes decided contrast to the book with its pacts to sell one’s soul to the Devil and end appearances of a personification of The Devil. The end the film reaches with Vincent Cassel being taunted by a possibly diabolic Sergi Lopez in the desert and crows picking at his innards is a decidedly underwhelming variation on the book’s climax that had Ambrosio tossed off a cliff by The Devil to lie there as ants and eagles tear at his flesh for seven days.