erik lundegaard

Le Moine
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The Monk (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For half the movie we’re wondering: Is it “the devil is a woman” or is it just the devil? The answer disappoints. Me anyway.

Vincent Cassel plays Capucin Ambrosio, who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a monastery in 16th-century Spain. The title graphic, “1595,” intrigues on its own when you consider that, for most movies, 1979 is ancient history. (The source material, by the way, is a gothic novel first published in 1796 by Matthew G. Lewis, Esq., who was not yet 20 years old. It’s been filmed twice before: in 1972 starring Franco Nero; and in 1990 starring Paul McGann. We get a new version every 20 years, basically.)

The movie opens with Ambrosio in the confessional telling a penitent, a man known only as Le Débauché (Sergi Lopez), that “Satan only has the power we give him.” Turns out Le Débauché has given Satan much power. He talks of falling, again and again. He talks of sleeping with his niece several times a day. “What an exquisite abyss,” he says with wonder in his voice. He seems to be enjoying his confession. Ambrosio is not amused. His eyes get darker and spookier. This is Vincent Cassel, after all.

Groupie? Snake? Gateway drug?

At this point, Ambrosio is something of a local legend. He is a firmly devout man who is able to communicate his faith, and the glory of God, to others. He coverts them. “His faith is so alive it swept my heart away,” says one supplicant, Antonia (Joséphine Japy), who faints after a sermon. We can’t help notice she’s pretty.

Then we follow several storylines:

  • Ambrosio’s mentor is dying, and warns of great evil all around.
  • A boy in a mask, a burn victim who has lost his parents, Valerio, asks to join the monastery. “I want to withdraw from the world and be closer to God,” he says. The other monks are doubtful and fearful; Ambrosio lets him in.
  • A nun visiting Ambrosio’s confessional drops a note indicating an illicit relationship. She begs understanding but Ambrosio gives her up. “Instead of fleeing punishment,” he tells her, “you should yearn for it.” She gets it. Pregnant, she’s imprisoned by L’abesse (Geraldine Chaplin) until she starves to death. She blames Ambrosio for her fate.
  • Antonia is courted by a handsome noble but her mother, Elvire (Catherine Mouchet), haunted by her own past, is doubtful.

We wonder how these stories will come together. Antonia’s, in particular, seems to have no relation to Ambrosio’s. Until it does.

The mentor dies, the nun dies, Valerio is revealed to be a girl (Deborah Francois of “Les tribulations d'une caissière”), who wants to be closer, not to God, but to Ambrosio. Is she an early version of a groupie? She asks for a rose from his garden before he sends her away, but as he reaches for it a scorpion bites him and poisons him. Near death, Valerio arrives and … Does she suck the poison out? Does she make love to him? Both? He lives, realizing he’s sinned, then sins again. She’s less groupie than the snake who has entered his Garden of Eden. But is she the snake?

The world turns dark. A fellow monk, about to finger Ambrosio for his infidelity, is killed by a fallen gargoyle. When Ambrosio investigates on the roof of the monastery, he realizes, as do we, that he’s living through a moment he’s dreamed about several times. Over the parapet, on the ground, he sees a woman in a red cloak praying in the baking sun. In his dream he reaches for her but can’t touch her. Now he does. It’s Antonia. She wants him to console her mother, who is dying and haunted by her past. He does. But now he’s haunted by his present and Antonia.

Rebuffed, Valerio offers Ambrosio a further temptation: a floral aphrodisiac, or organic date-rape drug, with which to seduce Antonia. He takes it, takes her, and the two of them, naked, are discovered by Elvire, who recognizes the birthmark on Ambrosio’s shoulder as the birthmark of the baby she gave up. Ambrosio is her child! And he’s sleeping with his sister! But before Elvire can say anything, Ambrosio wakes, walks up to her, and kills her. His mother.

By this point, yeah, I’d lost interest.

Why Satan should stay on the sidelines

While Ambrosio is worth watching in his moral rectitude, he’s not at all interesting in his fall—or in how he falls. It’s an unfair fight, really. Throughout I kept wondering what sexual release 17th-century monks had. None? How impossible. And to then have Satan gang up on you? Poison you and entice you with beautiful French girls? Speaking for men, we have little shot even if Satan stays on the sidelines. Once he gets into the game, it’s over.

The interesting battle, in other words, is internal, not external. The interesting foe is within, not without.

“The Monk” (“Le Moine”), directed by Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry…”), is beautifully photographed by Patrick Blossier, who juxtaposes the cool monastery with the white-hot, baked surroundings. As always, Vincent Cassel is a force, here mostly held in check. Joséphine Japy has a delicate beauty. But I’m not a fan of gothic anything.

After his trial but before his death, Satan finally appears before Ambrosio. He’s Le Débauché, from the beginning, who throws Ambrosio’s own words back at him: “Satan only has the power we give him.” Then a final deal is struck. Antonia has gone mad (her rapist is her brother who kills their mother) and Ambrosio sells his eternal soul to make her well and happy. One wonders: Is this redemption for Ambrosio, since it’s the ultimate sacrifice? Or is it the final step in Ambrosio’s fall, since his eternal soul belongs to Satan? At which point, black birds, who pecked at the baby Ambrosio at the doorstep of the monastery, pick at the remains of the grown man, dead in the desert.

So probably the latter.

—March 10, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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