Review of The Monk (Dominik Moll, 2011)

by Mark Wallace

The Empire review of Dominik Moll’s new film The Monk described the author of the 1796 source novel, Matthew Lewis, as the “father of torture porn”, which is perhaps not without a certain logic. But Lewis’ novel has a manic energy all of its own, a gleefully nihilistic taboo-smashing aesthetic which sets it apart from all competitors. Its lascivious fascination with the corruption/ exploitation of innocence is Sadean, but its boisterousness and irreverance lift it far above. Could such an energy be once again harnessed by a 21st century French director, working in a milieu where the taboos Lewis took such pleasure in demolishing have lost much of their potency?

Reviews of The Monk have been unenthusiastic. The aforementioned Empire review found it solid but “there’s a spark missing”, and Sight and Sound was similarly respectful but unengaged, finding that the old gothic tropes weren’t given enough of a novel twist to make this a really worthwhile film. And it’s true, they’re not: this is quite a classically gothic film (if you’ll pardon the oxymoron) –  gargoyles, ravens, etc. – and perhaps the best that can be said of it is that it’s the sort of film you’ll like if you like that sort of film. It’s beautiful looking, making good use of the medieval Spanish towns in which it was shot, and heavily reliant on scenes shot in either dark shadows or scorching Spanish sunlight. Vincent Cassel is well cast as Ambrosio, the monk of the title: he can pull off ascetic and monkish while also looking convincing as a man tortured by lusts of the flesh. Empire mentioned that Deborah Francois “isn’t quite devastatingly sexy enough” as a succubus – perhaps true, but it’s not a major flaw as her character isn’t given that much screen time in this adaptation, and Ambroso’s lust for her is played down, more space being given to the lust he develops for  Antonia , in which role Josephine Japy is well cast. In any case, the hallucinogenic love sequence between Ambrosio and Francois’ Valerio is memorable.

The one problem real problem with Moll’s film is the pacing in the latter stages. The denouement was rushed and the closing scene was underwhelming and slightly confusing. Was Moll trying to bring in an element of redemption for Ambrosio’s character? I couldn’t help recall the unhinged relish with which Lewis punishes his anti-hero, and would have liked to have seen some of that bite here. But whether Moll wants to recreate Lewis’s tone or go for something else,  I think the latter part is in dire need of a re-edit. Anti-climax aside, this is a well-made and entirely diverting film, one which has perhaps been too harshly judged by reviewers, but which I can well imagine will develop a cult following and have a long shelf-life.