Today: February 22, 2024

The Monk DVD

By – Erykah Brackenbury – Penned in 1796, The Monk created a huge scandal when published by future MP Matthew Lewis

By Erykah Brackenbury

Penned in 1796, The Monk created a huge scandal when
published by future MP Matthew Lewis

– imagine Louise Mensch having written American Psycho rather
than chick lit-by-numbers. Alas, what was sensational genre-breaking in the
late 18th-century skims the borders of cliché to modern eyes.

Virtuous monk Ambrosio is something of a celebrity in
17th-century Madrid. But, as Shakespeare taught us in Romeo &
Juliet
, never trust a Catholic; particularly if he looks like Vincent
Cassel.
Though famed for his goodness
and charisma, Ambrosio quickly falls from grace as temptation arrives in the
form of Matilda (Déborah François), disguised as a young novice in order
to be close to the famed abbot. Succumbing to desire and consumed by original
sin, Ambrosio is set onto an inescapable downward spiral; a Faustian
fall from grace.

Whilst the human angle of the tragedy is indeed compelling,
the issues involved are somewhat alien to a 21st-century audience. As a
sexually free society, the concept and importance of the immortal soul in
relation to more visceral pleasures has all-but vanished. Science – rather than
sex – vs. religion has become our major concern, with sexual guilt thankfully no
longer commonplace.

It is a struggle to empathise with the issues, particularly
when a film that could be highly erotic lacks any frisson of sensuality. A
supposed criticism of Catholic guilt, at times the film almost seems consumed
by that very worry. The groundbreaking and shocking aspects inherent in the
original text are sadly lost in this adaptation, replaced instead with
interminable self-questioning. Whilst this could be prime fodder for some
psychological tension, the film barely scratches the surface of the potential
issues.

A visually stunning piece, cinematographer Patrick
Blossier
replicates Renaissance artwork, playing with light and dark to add
an element of unease and feeling that director Dominik Moll fails to
capture.

Moll and co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic strip out
many of the book’s more bonkers sub-plots in favour of a focus on the eponymous
monk. Despite Cassel’s compelling performance, this is still a stilted and
disjointed piece which seems unsure of what it wants to be – unlike the previous
Cassel piece Black Swan, which skillfully explored both psychological and
erotic issues. The original text contains some utterly gruesome imagery which
betrays the youth of its 19-year-old author, but would fit comfortably in the
age of ‘torture porn’.

Even camp nonsense akin to a Hammer Horror, playing off the
surreal nature of the plot, with devils and ghosts and apparitions (most cut in
this adaptation), would be more suitable than the continual navel-gazing
we are instead given– and probably more sexy. This should have been adapted as
a bonk-fest in the ’70s with Ingrid Pitt disguised as a
wholly-unconvincing man.

Redeemed in part by the acting and cinematography, The Monk
unfortunately is a missed opportunity, with occasional glimpses into what
should have been a stunning piece of cinema.

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