Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Cowl me maybe: "The Monk"
With The Monk, the German-born, French-based director Dominik Moll sets out to give Matthew Lewis's 18th century novel the full Gothic treatment: it's all swooning maidens and thunderclaps, there perhaps to disguise an underlying lack of purpose. At its centre is Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), a monk plagued by headaches and nightmarish visions; a hero to his fellow brothers, who see him as the last bastion in the fight against Satan and le mal, he's also seen as something of a pin-up among the local community of nuns, who long to confess their every sordid thought and deed to him. Even in our heathen times, you can see how this might put him in a precarious position.
Moll has form with films of a committed strangeness - 2000's absurdist crime thriller Harry He's Here to Help, 2005's quasi-Buñuelian Lemming - but these films proceeded along more or less straight narrative lines. The Monk proves weirdly shapeless, chasing several other strands through its universe like a kitten after balls of string. Ambrosio's spiritual crisis coincides with the arrival of an apparently scarred youth hiding behind the spookiest mask seen on screen since Edith Scob in Eyes Without A Face; the courtship of a young woman (Joséphine Japy) in the nearby village; the attempts of a novice nun to hide both an affair and the resultant bellybump from the establishment, as represented by Geraldine Chaplin as "the Abbess"; the exorcism of a shepherd (a potential showstopper, thrown away in montage); and, perhaps not coincidentally, the passing of Ambrosio's mentor, who expires with the words "He's here! He's here!" on his lips.
The sound you can make out under all the electrical activity is that of deleted scenes hitting the cutting room floor, or of Moll and his co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic pulling their hair out trying to turn a heavily symbolic book - one that has eluded two previous sets of filmmakers - into coherent, or at least engaging, drama. The further the film gets away from Ambrosio's predicament, the more it takes on the look of robed soap opera, alternately silly and self-serious. Basically, it's The Thorn Birds with boobs, and while it makes sense to offer up the irresistibly ripe flesh of Déborah François by way of temptation, it seems unduly perverse to make the reliably hyperactive Cassel the stillest point on screen; we end up having to sit through an hour of the actor pretending to be virtuous in order to get to the lechery and lipsmacking we know he (and we) signed up for, and even that comes as disappointingly mild for the territory. Watching The Monk, you start to realise the movies may be missing Ken Russell more than they realise.
The Monk opens in selected cinemas from Friday.