With brooding French actor Vincent Cassel playing a monk, you can be sure his character’s chastity and sanctity are not fully guaranteed. And so it turns out in The Monk ('O Monge') – a French-language adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 eponymous gothic novel about Ambrosio (Cassel), a revered friar in early seventeenth-century Spain who is increasingly drawn to sins of the flesh after being corrupted by the devil.
At first, Ambrosio shows pious rectitude in handing over an errant nun to her superiors, but soon he is tempted by a masked girl, Matilda (Déborah François), dressed as a monk, and a young woman, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who is desperate for him to pray at the bedside of her sick mother, Elvira (Catherine Mouchet), whose own past hangs ominously in the air.
Director Dominik Moll is best known for Harry, He’s Here to Help and Lemming, both good-looking modern psychological thrillers rooted in the real world. Though superficially different, his approach here is fairly similar – only the ‘real’ world of a medieval monk, especially this one, involves visions of heaven and hell with added flashbacks of carnal shenanigans. The whole thing could have been a lot camper in the hands of someone like Ken Russell in his heyday, and whether you miss such stylings will depend on your taste.
As it is, Moll plays it deadly straight but struggles to maintain interest in seemingly unrelated strands of his story or to make Ambrosio’s fall from grace as sinister and compelling as it should be. The photography and design are high points, with a night-time religious procession that is very freaky indeed.