Some of our best and most lasting horror stories have originated in gothic novels. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are two examples that spring instantly to mind. A slightly earlier example of the genre is The Monk, written in 1796 by the young British parliamentarian Matthew Lewis. As best I can tell, it has only been cinematically tapped before a couple times before this French production, Le moine, and never with this level of production. As might be expected from a gothic novel, it’s deliciously overwrought, but I could definitely see where for some it could cross the line into being overdone.
Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) lives in a monastery in the scrubland just outside Madrid, as he has since he was found on the abbey’s doorstep with nothing to identify him but a claw-shaped birthmark on his right shoulder. Over the years he’s become known as a gifted orator, with hundreds of the faithful coming to hear his sermons. But now something sinister is stalking him, most clearly embodied as the temptations of a young woman (Déborah François) leading him astray.
Brother Ambrosio’s fate is also entangled with that of a young nun whose indiscretions he doesn’t have the mercy to keep secret from her abbess (Geraldine Chapin), as well as a young woman, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who worries both about her suitor (Frédéric Noaille) and her ailing and troubled mother (Catherine Mouchet), and who seeks comfort from the esteemed friar. Unfortunately, neither of these plot lines is very well fleshed-out, except as far as they reflect back on Ambrosio’s descent into sin.
Director Dominik Moll, who also adapted Lewis’ novel with the help of Anne-Louise Trividic, seems most directly inspired by the Francis Ford Coppola versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as he plays up the lurid sexuality which, admittedly, is at the heart of the story. He gets some wonderfully scenery-chewing performances, particularly from Cassel. Even a character wearing a fixed full-face mask seems intensely emotional, which is quite a feat if you think about it.
The flip side is that this kind of melodrama — along with the odd dip into psychedelia — can become cloying in large doses. This is fine, and even encouraged, in modern gothica like True Blood, but it ends up sapping the impact of a serious treatment. The result is fun, taboo-pushing entertainment, but doesn’t manage to treat any of the original novel’s themes in any effective way. We see the crumbling abbey, the gargoyles with their faces ominously blasted off from many long years of wind and rain, but nothing ever really connects it with the crumbling role of the church and the dominant powers. The film lives down to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s assessment of the novel: it is “exquisitely imagined, and as exquisitely supported”, and the viewer “discovers an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid”, but “the errors and defects are more numerous, and (we are sorry to add) of greater importance”. While it may well be fun as a diversion, there’s none of the lasting impact of the great gothic movies.
Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.