The Monk explores the torments of the soul
by Fabien Lemercier
11/07/2011 - When a director of the calibre of Dominik Moll (in competition at Cannes in 2000 with With A Friend Like Harry and in 2005 with Lemming [trailer]) teams up with a flamboyant actor like Vincent Cassel, it inevitably sparks interest. In his adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), often described as the first gothic novel, the filmmaker who is fond of disturbing atmospheres and ambiguous personalities plunges straight into the heart of darkness where Good and Evil clash, in the wounds of inner human conflicts, in that place where reality and mysticism mingle dangerously.
A costume drama not overly concerned with historical reconstruction but faithful to the fantasy tradition (ghost, black magic, gargoyles, storm, cemetery, exorcism, mask…), The Monk [trailer] paints the portrait of a man plagued by his demons and the inexorable workings of an evil karma. But this strange film combining cinematic excellence and a sometimes rigid script doesn’t just analyse the psychological impact of invisible forces, but exposes the consequences of a lack of love and the power of impulses that are all the more violent as attempts are made to suppress them.
In 1595, a baby is abandoned at the gates of a Capuchin monastery not far from Madrid. Raised by the monks, Ambrosio (Cassel) becomes a renowned and feared preacher, who embodies moral perfection. A pitiless man ("every fisherman commits sins on their own scale, God punishes them all"), he doesn’t hesitate in denouncing a young nun in love who is condemned by her superior to a slow death ("you will endure the torture of hunger and thirst until you pass away").
But a young masked character moves into the monastery and Ambrosio is plagued by a premonitory dream (a rooftop, a bird of prey in the sky, a woman in red). Evil has entered, the past becomes clearer like "the fire of truth" and a poison seeps into the soul of the monk "hanging above the mouth of Hell". This possession drives him towards increasingly dramatic sins.
Beautifully directed, in particular with superb work on the contrasts in light, some bold stylistic choices (superimposed images) and Vélasquez-style framing, The Monk is carried by an impressive performance by Cassel (whose usual energy is this time completely introverted) and strong supporting roles (including Catherine Mouchet and Géraldine Chaplin). Even though the fantasy elements seem rather contrived and the plot threads a bit too mechanical, Moll manages to create a strong enough atmosphere to convey his protagonist’s anguish. For more than the erratic and inevitable twists and turns of the genre, it’s the psychological-mystical plot that is the film’s main point of interest, wavering between exorcism ("Leave, don’t ever come back") and temptation ("Give me your soul, recognise my power and I’ll offer you eternity by my side").
Set to be released in France on July 13 by its producer Diaphana, The Monk, co-produced by Spain’s Morena Films and sold internationally by Memento Films International, will later be launched on numerous territories.
(Translated from French)