The Monk/Le Moine


Directed by Dominik Moll. Starring Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Josephine Japy, Catherine Mouchet, Geraldine Chaplin 15A cert, IFI, Dublin, 101 min

MATTHEW Gregory Lewis’s 1796 romance is acknowledged as the first horror novel to lurch unexpectedly forth from gothic literature.

The book’s mad, heightened morality tale, replete with incest, black magic, rape, murder, transvestitism and voguish frills like the Wandering Jew, was mad enough to attract the attentions of author Antonin Artaud, who rewrote it, and Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, who tried and failed to adapt The Monk for the big screen in the 1960s. (Their screenplay was adapted for a quickly forgotten French version in 1972.)

Beyond the loopy tangents into ghost stories and legends – Lewis was only 19 when he hastily banged out the novel in the space of 10 days – the book is a straightforward narrative of virtue corrupted. Capuchin bigwig Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) is a friar in Spain with a rock star rep for giving great mass during the fraught Inquisition years.

Ambrosio holy and decent – until he succumbs to feelings of carnal desire for his wanton pupil, Matilda (Déborah François), a woman disguised as a monk. Once our antihero has transgressed there’s no stopping him. Driven mad with lust for the virginal Antonia (Josephine Japy), he and the plainly evil Matilda concoct a plan and magic potion so that Ambrosio can get the girl.

We were so excited about The Monk. Directed by Harry, He’s Here to Help auteur Dominik Moll, scored by Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias, and jollied along by Vincent Cassel’s creepiest turn since 2006’s Sheitan, the film promises arthouse thrills and spills. Sadly, it fails to deliver.

The ghastly, glossy digital stock is entirely at odds with the gothic content. Cinematographer Patrick Blossier’s sunny landscapes ought to look hellish but not 1980s wedding video hellish, surely? In theory, the movie’s unforgiving glare lends kitchen-sink believability to lunatic material; in practice it only demonstrates that the road to damnation is paved with good intentions.

Cassel, conversely, brings naturalism to Greek plotting and polemical exchanges on free will and purity. But even the sublimely talented French actor can’t save the final act from descending into seven new kinds of crazy. If it weren’t for The Cabin in the Woods we’d call it the most disappointing denouement of the year.