Pardon Judge Daryl Loomis while he flogs himself.
Temptation hunts us all.
Before he turned twenty and after ten days of writing, Matthew Gregory Lewis finished his great gothic novel. At that point, I'm certain he had no idea that, when it was published in 1796, it would cause such an uproar. Pearls were clutched and couches were fainted upon everywhere it was published, leading to a big endorsement from noted critic the Marquis de Sade. His tale of corruption, murder, rape, and incest sounds pretty much like what a 20-year-old male is apt to write even today, which is maybe why it seems like such natural adaptation material. Director Dominik Moll (With a Friend Like Harry…) doesn't quite hit the mark with his new adaptation of the story, but he does make something enjoyably salacious and, quite often, that's good enough.
Facts of the Case
One dark night, a newborn baby was left on the doorstep of a Spanish monastery. Many years later, the child grew up to be Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan), the most charismatic and admired of all the monks. He is proud of his faith and believes that he alone is immune to temptation. When a masked boy shows up, claiming severe burns and wanting refuge at the monastery, most of his brothers are wary. In his kindness, though, Ambrosio invites him to stay and tells the doubters to use his suffering to learn. Soon, though, the boy takes a particular interest in him, revealing himself to be something other than what he claimed and gravely challenging Ambrosio's piety.
While Moll's adaptation of The Monk is faithful enough to the plot, it's lacking much of the character development and all of the satire of the original novel. From the subject matter and the look of the film, it's clear Moll was interested in making a surrealist satire in the Buñuel tradition, but he seems to be one of many directors who forget that surrealism means more than weird and shocking imagery. Still, its most outrageous moments come as a result of that imagery, so I'm not really complaining there.
Luckily, it doesn't fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously. Once Ambrosio's corruption begins, Moll sends him into freefall with all the potboiler elements that one script can handle. Mysterious cloaked figures, mistaken identities, ominous birthmarks, black magic, incest; The Monk has a little bit of everything. There's no winking at the camera, but only for a few fleeting moments do the characters reckon with what they've done before moving on to the next disgrace.
Vincent Cassel does quite well as Ambrosio, all brooding piety to start and believably filled with lust and rage by the end. He has the gravitas to pull it off and performs excellently in the meaty role. Sadly, his is the only performance worth noting, though it's more the fault of the way the characters are written than it is the actual performers. The spend nearly all their time either whispering or spouting off melodramatically and, though that's in line with the content, they all do so in exactly the same way, making it hard to differentiate which character has done what.
This, along with an overall very slow pace, left me feeling cold about The Monk. It has plenty of individual moments that I enjoy and, maybe on further viewing, I'll feel a little better about the whole thing. But even with all its lurid content, lovely cinematography (by Patrick Blossier, Vagabond), and rich Spanish setting, I just couldn't bring myself to care.
The Monk arrives in a decent DVD package from New Video. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very good in general, with a good crisp image and nice detail throughout the frame. It's a very dark film and the black levels stand up to the test, while colors look excellent throughout. There are a few instances of aliasing and banding here and there; it isn't very distracting but it's there. The French surround track is also strong. It has nicely delineated dialog and music with good dynamic range and decent rear channel effects. The only extra is a 45-minute making-of featurette that says exactly what you might expect it would, with discussions of the cast and crew, as well as the intention behind the film.
The Monk has its strong points. It's stylish and lurid with a very good performance from Cassel; there's no good reason I shouldn't like this movie. Its underwhelming characterizations and tedious pacing left me cold, though, and wishing for more horror and less gothic atmosphere. While it might be in step with the novel, it's not really conducive to the movie, at least in this case. For all its salacious moments, the only thing shocking about the movie is how dull I found the experience. Still, there are enough strengths that a certain audience will really like it, but I have a hard time recommending it.
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