Tuesday 1 January 2013

The Monk [aka Le moine] (2011)

When I was preparing my Dark Hero unit (here) in 2010 I went looking for film versions of the books I included, like Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796). I found a few versions of Faustus (I review one here) and The Monk, and lots of Wuthering Heights.

Unfortunately, none of the film versions of The Monk were available in 2010. The 1972 version directed by Ado Kyrou (Le Moine, aka The Monk) was issued on DVD in Spain in 2005 (here), but is "Currently unavailable" on Amazon. While the 1990 version directed by Francisco Lara Polop, The Monk, aka The Final Temptation or The Seduction of a Priest, is not on DVD at all. VHS tapes are “mega rarität” and expensive (see here for £46.25 and here for 36.99 Euros—in German).

Having another look now, I see that there are few vendors of the 1972 film on eBay, so I have just ordered one. According to "housefulofpaper" here, the 1972 film "was shown on UK terrestrial TV some time in the last ten years … whilst the 1990 version starring Paul McGann was on satellite TV (Rupert Murdoch's Sky) around 2005"—so it is surprising, and a bit disappointing, that neither are available on DVD-R from archival film services like Videoscreams.com.

Anyway, as soon as I discovered that a new film version of The Monk was available, I bought it (along with another film version of Wuthering Heights—the first to represent Heathcliffe as dark-skinned, as he is described in the book). I watched the film last week and loved it.

* * * * *

Dominik Moll is credited with the direction, screenplay, adaptation and dialogue. According to Rottentomatoes.com, reviews have been mixed, but average 5.6/10.

The Guardian: "this feverishly intense movie has a tablespoon of 1970s art-porn … not a story of great depth or passion, but there are intriguing and unsettling moments"; The Financial Times: a "super-fruity adaptation … a silly film—1970s soft-porny—but not without a certain ominousness."

I am not sure how a feverishly intense movie can not be a story of great depth or passion… and I didn’t get the 1970s "art-porn" or "soft-porny" vibe that Peter Bradshaw and Antonia Quirke detected. At all. And I have to admit to watching a lot of dodgy 70s films (including, I think, everything made in 1972), so I am a bit of an expert on the subject!

The Daily Mail is closer to the mark, but still exaggerates by describing it as "a lethally slow, stylistically confused tale … negligible character development means he fails to hold our interest." Better still, on the merits of the film, is the review of Matthew Turner for ViewLondon (here)

Vincent Cassel is perfectly cast and delivers a superb performance … Deborah Francois is equally good as Valerio (her intriguingly blank face is endlessly fascinating) and there's strong support from both Mouchet and Japy. 

The film is strikingly shot, with gorgeous, sun-bleached photography by Patrick Blossier and some stunning location work, particularly in the dream like final act. Moll also makes strong use of the colour red and creates an intense, cloying atmosphere that's highly effective.

Many of the reviewers are unfamiliar with the book, and offer either misguided or absurd criticisms of the film. The most idiotic review has to be that of Henry Fitzherbert in The Daily Express: "a dull B-movie with ideas above its station."

* * * * *

Dominik Moll has simplified the story—as a film must—focussing on Ambrosio, and attempting to build sympathy for him. Moll does this by spending time on Ambrosio’s back-story (abandoned, raised as an orphan), his intelligence, his development into a skilled preacher, his suffering (blinding headaches) and his isolation in the monastery, his close friendship with the abbot of his order and grief over his death. Rather than being proud, austere and judgemental, Ambrosio is devout and sincere. 

More importantly, Moll mitigates or removes Ambrosio’s responsibility for his "fall." When Valerio/Matilda sucks the poison from his wound, she rapes him—he is barely conscious at the time—and there is only the briefest montage to suggest that the sexual relationship continues. The audience does not see anything to suggest the extent of Ambrosio’s libidinous urges or that he takes an interest in Antonia only when he has tired of constant sex with Matilda. Ambrosio (and the audience) does not see any of Matilda’s dealings with infernal powers, eliding his indirect dealings with the devil. And the audience does not see how long he plots to abduct and rape Antonia.

Also, rather than murder Elvire, then abduct her grieving daughter (Antonia), rape her (while she is wide awake) in a crypt, and subsequently murder her to escape capture (as occurs in the book), Ambrosio rapes the sleeping Antonia, then murders her mother (Elvire) when she finds him. He is identified by Elvire as her son as he is stabbing her, and is paralysed with remorse and horror immediately afterward, allowing himself to be captured by Antonia’s fiancé. Finally, when Matilda and the devil confront Ambrosio in prison (and offer him a pact), he sacrifices his soul to restore Antonia to sanity and health, rather than (as occurs in the book) selling his soul to evade punishment.

 Moll seems to think that, shorn of his pride, lust and violence, Ambrosio can be a sympathetic character. But to build sympathy for Ambrosio as a latter-day St Anthony tempted by the devil, we need to see more of the devil and his agent, more of Ambrosio’s temptation and fall into lust, and more of his descent from lust into every other species of sin if his "fall" is going to have any meaning.

 There are a number of ways Moll could have done this: he makes nothing of the resemblance of Valerio/Matilda to Ambrosio’s beloved Virgin Mary (specifically her portrait, which he adores), and by hiding the face of Valerio/Matilda—and by eliding the growing companionship, friendship and open adoration of Valerio/Matilda—there is no chance for his/her disturbing beauty and emotional bond to begin the work of seduction.

 (A low-brow comparison would be Zapp Brannigan, who becomes increasingly infatuated with "Leela Man" when Leela disguises herself as a man to join the military in Futurama (season 2, ep.17: War Is the H-Word). When the big reveal comes Zapp exclaims: "So it's you I've been attracted to! Oh, God, I've never been so happy to be beaten up by a woman!")

 He also does not suggest how trapped Ambrosio is once his senses and his passions have woken.

 What Moll does do—or rather, what Emmanuelle Prévost does, who deserves full credit for the casting—is make Ambrosio’s two female temptations (Deborah Francois as Valerio/Matilda and Josephine Japy as Antonia) gorgeous enough to truly test the celibacy of a saint (as Chris Tookey observes). Superb acting, fabulous costumes, sets, lighting and photography combine to accentuate the beauty of Japy, but the same could be said of a number of actors and the presentation of the film as a whole.

 So, while the film is a little slow to get started, and it is a little confused in its presentation of Ambrosio, whose character does not "develop" (descend into debauchery as we might expect) it is not "soft-porny" or "stylistically confused"!