“Love is a burden. A poison. Never fall in love.”
French thriller director Dominik Moll’s adaptation of this gothic 1796 novel is an ambitious attempt to revive an old and controversial story for a modern audience. Expectations were high, but despite starring the inimitable Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, La Haine, Mesrine) in the lead role and featuring a bold visual style, The Monk is sadly no greater than the sum of its parts.
Cassel plays Brother Ambrosio who, abandoned at a Madrid monastery’s door when he was just a baby, knows little of life outside its walls. Under the watchful eye of the friars, Ambrosio grows up to become a talented preacher with an apparently unimpeachable moral compass. However, when a dark presence arrives at the monastery the form of a stranger in a wax mask (eerily reminiscent of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face), Ambrosio finds his faith tested for the very first time. Risking everything for a taste of forbidden fruit, Ambrosio’s inevitable descent into evil will lose him his profession, his standing and ultimately, his soul.
The Monk is heavily stylised, making great use of the surrounding landscape to create a striking balance of darkness and light. In a subversive play on familiar tropes, the monastery as a beacon of religious ‘good’ is shrouded in darkness while the outside world is bright enough to be almost blinding. As with his previous works Lemming (2005) and Harry, he’s here to help (2000), Moll admits that his visual style is greatly indebted to Hitchcock and this is quite apparent throughout. Certain homages to Hitchcock, like the ‘iris’ shots (where the screen is engulfed with a black circle to mark the end of a scene) seem a little gimmicky and out of place. The Monk often seems so preoccupied with its visual impact that other important elements are lost along the way. More time could have been spent on the costumes, for example, which look inauthentic to the point of caricature.
The performances are very much a mixed bag. Vincent Cassel flounders a little in the early scenes; portraying Brother Ambrosio as the embodiment of religious dignity and devotion seems a little out of his comfort zone. Perhaps unsurprisingly for French cinema’s go-to villain, Cassel thrives in the latter half of the film when he is thrown something a little juicier to chew on. Other stand out performances include Roxane Duran as the tragic and fragile Sister Agnes and Sergí Lopez in a brief appearance as the monstrous child-molester. Some characters, meanwhile, come across as rather two-dimensional and underdeveloped, making it hard to feel any emotional investment in their fates. The love story between bland suitor Lorenzo (Frédéric Noaille) and beautiful Antonia (Joséphine Japy) makes particularly trying viewing.
While The Monk does not lack ambition, with a highly controversial and rich storyline, the delivery is sadly lacking. Despite a strong story and adventurous cinematography, the film fails to pack an emotional punch. It is perhaps The Monk’s aspirations which are its outdoing; it may well have benefitted from a little toning down.
The Monk will be showing at the BFI London Film Festival and is set for general UK release in 2012. You can check out the trailer below.