55th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Monk’ held together by a towering performance from Vincent Cassel

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The Monk (Le Moine)

Directed by Dominik Moll

Written by Dominik Moll and Anne-Louise Trividic, from the novel by Matthew Lewis

France, 2011

Dominik Moll’s The Monk is so redolent with Gothic gloom, overweening piety and suppressed lust that it’s almost in danger of self-combusting. It’s held together by a towering performance from Vincent Cassel, who recently played French gangster Jacques Mesrine, and seems to exude menace without even trying.

From the moment a baby is left to be pecked by crows outside a Capuchin monastery in Spain, you know we’re in very dark territory. Despite an ominous birthmark on his shoulder, the unfortunate boy is taken in and raised by the monks. Ambrosio grows up to be a man of unimpeachable virtue and religious zeal and a beacon of hope for worshippers like beautiful young Antonia (Joséphine Japy). But things start to unravel when Ambrosio ignores the misgivings of his brothers and allows a masked and (supposedly) disfigured young novice into the community.

I hadn’t even heard of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel before I saw this film. It seems that Moll (Lemming, Harry, He’s Here to Help) and co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic had a mammoth task on their hands trying to condense all the characters and subplots into a coherent 100-minute package. So while Moll keeps the action moving along here, there are times when you can’t see how the various strands will fit together. A storyline involving a pregnant nun reveals the utter ruthlessness of both the abbess (Geraldine Chaplin) and Ambrosio. The wholesome romance between sweet, virginal Antonia and the lovestruck Lorenzo is conducted in sunlit exteriors that provide a visual counterpoint to the decaying atmosphere of the monastery.

I won’t reveal the identity of the mask-wearing Valerio, but if you’re familiar with the cast list you may well figure out the secret by process of elimination. This character is the key to Ambrosio’s transition from a man of God to an instrument of the Devil. Perhaps the monk was always fated to do evil because of the circumstances of his birth. You can detect a certain ambivalence in the very first scene in which he listens to the shocking sexual misdeeds of one of his penitents. But the forces of darkness that seem to leach from every one of those hideous gargoyles, finally coalesce in the slight figure of Valerio. The scenes in which Ambrosio is first poisoned and then seduced in a feverish, dream-like episode, are among the most disturbing in the film.

There’s little in the way of explicit violence or sex in The Monk — until the final scenes. But by then Ambrosio’s physical and psychological torments — blinding headaches, visions of a woman in red — have been so exhaustively chronicled that you fear the worst. Despite some of the more lurid moments — Ambrosio bangs a crown of thorns into his own head — Cassel evokes pity as a man torn apart by forces he can’t control.

Luis Buñuel planned to direct a version of Lewis’s novel back in the 60s. (He abandoned it to make Belle de Jour, but his screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière was later usedfor Adonis Kyrou’s 1972 version.) Given his extraordinary track record of combining anti-Catholic themes with elements of surrealism I’m sorry we never got to see his full vision. I suspect there would have been a streak of dark humour there, too.

Moll’s film is beautifully shot by Patrick Blossier, contrasting the arid Madrid locations by day with the forbidding exterior of the monastery and its grounds at night. Despite the nature of the story, the performances are comparatively restrained. Cassel and Déborah François are particularly impressive as characters veering between outward spirituality and all-consuming carnality. So immerse yourself in the world of The Monk – with all its bells, smells and candles — and don’t worry too much about who’s winning the eternal battle between good and evil.

Susannah Straughan

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival

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