Dominik Moll’s new film is the latest uninspired adaptation of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, a grisly, early Gothic novel deemed highly transgressive and indictable by critics upon its publication in 1796. Using the conventional structure of the morality tale, Lewis subverted the underlying messaging of tsk-tsk storytelling, undermining the righteousness of virtue by writing good characters into tragic outcomes brought on by mythical representations of evil. Killing off innocent characters was a provocative literary device for the late 1700s, when organized religion was the grounding moral framework of its readers, but in contemporary times such plot turns are typically crafted in the quest of other larger, secular ideas, like the randomness of life or moral relativity.
Moll never addresses Lewis’s original groundbreaking ideas in The Monk, nor does he rework the material for a contemporary audience. Instead, the film diminishes the significance of secondary characters to focus on the repressed inner lubricity of its bleary-eyed titular protagonist, Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), a popular, doting monk reputed for his God-fearing sermons. Delivered anonymously to the monastery as a baby orphan, Ambrosio is taken in by the monks despite their shared worry about a strange, hand-like birthmark on his arm being a sign of the devil. Ambrosio grows up to be an intelligent, articulate servant to God whose religious devotion is unparalleled by his peers, though he’s disturbed by a recurring dream of a hooded red figure whom he cannot physically reach. That’s the first sign of the devil—or conversely, Ambrosio’s own mental seed of perversion—that eventually grows into the corporeal form of a young woman, Matilda (Déborah François), who masks herself and claims in a low whisper to be Valerio, a young male burn victim who desires to be closer to God. Satan works his magic through Matilda’s miraculous healing; her touch eases Ambrosio’s headaches and she later sucks out centipede venom from the feverish, semi-conscious monk’s hand, leading to delirious sex that he barely remembers upon awakening. Upon his first iniquity against God, it’s basically all over for Ambrosio; he does one bad thing after another, eventually raping a young woman, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who looks up to him, and killing her mother (who turns out to be his own mother).
There are a few interesting ideas introduced in the narrative, albeit mechanically, most notably the question of evil being an essentialist quality with symbolic markers. Was Ambrosio a spawn of the devil all along, or were the omens (the birthmark, the crows that nearly peck his infantile body to death, his untouchable rose garden, his dream) simply superstitious projections? Another theory could be that the priest’s callous treatment of a pregnant nun later imprisoned to death was his first real sin against God, and that the rest of the film plays out as a kind of karmic revenge against Ambrosio. The film does little to flesh out either idea and settles instead on a vague ambiguity about the subject; such muddling makes the characters’ frequent rote platitudes about the presence of the Devil that much more empty and meaningless.
When the Devil does arrive in the form of the young, nubile beauty of Matilda, the once-devout Ambrosio loses all control over his actions so quickly and redundantly it’s a wonder such a tedious film can churn longer than an hour. But it’s the lack of motivation and explanation behind Ambrosio’s descent into hell that ultimately sinks The Monk into its own ruin. Ambrosio shows consciousness, though not conscientiousness, thereby eliminating the idea that he’s possessed, and even if he were, the film’s internal logic and occasional flirtations with visceral depictions of supernatural evil would dictate the visual communication of demonic possession. The film is otherwise quite naturalistic, and yet every part of the viewer begs for Ambrosio’s perplexed expressions, eyes beady from dark cinematography, to transform into a grotesque apparition of the devil. In a film that ungainly echoes the horror genre, such an ending would be a cheap modernization of Lewis’s gripping novel, but at least it would make the film superficially gratifying.