Best known for the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000), French director Dominik Moll returns with an adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel, starring Vincent Cassel in the role of conflicted monk Ambrosio. Abandoned as a child on the doorstep of a monastery, Ambrosio is brought up as a Capuchin, and becomes an inspiring preacher admired by all for his moral intransigence and incorruptible virtue. But the Devil soon throws temptation in his path, and he has to battle increasingly more sinful urges.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Dominik Moll at the London Film Festival in October 2011 about the nature of evil, the Catholic Church and the meaning of ‘Gothic’.
Virginie Sélavy: The Monk is your first period film. Was it something you’d always wanted to try?
Dominik Moll: I wasn’t interested in period films, I felt there were too many constraints in terms of costumes and sets, and that you had to spend too much energy solving those problems. At the same time, I’d been thinking about adapting a novel by Wilkie Collins, so I’d been tinkering with the idea for a while. What I liked about the prospect of adapting The Monk was that even though it’s a period film, everything is imaginary and imagined, and that gives you a lot of freedom and space. You’re not limited by the need to represent historical facts or characters accurately, and you can invent everything.
The novel is narratively complex, with many twists and turns. It must have been difficult to adapt.
It’s true, the novel is very long and dense, but at the same time there are two parallel stories, which are connected at the end but are fairly separate, even geographically. There’s the story of Ambrosio in Spain, and that of Agnes and her lover, which takes place mostly in Germany, and which didn’t interest me as much. Once I’d decided I wanted to concentrate on Ambrosio, there were further alterations to make. At times, the novel is very repetitive. Matthew Lewis wrote it very quickly when he was 19, so the structure is not always rigorous.
In the novel, Ambrosio is used by Lewis to settle scores with the Catholic Church. From the start he’s a hypocritical, vile, cowardly character, so it’s difficult to relate to him, and you’re kept at an ironic distance. I wanted the audience to be able to like him. For me, it was important that he should be a character who, in the beginning, believes in what he says and does, so that his trajectory is that of a man convinced of his mission who, little by little, is going to lose his points of reference. But the novel is so rich that you could make 10 different adaptations from it. I don’t think there’s one unique, valid adaptation – every director brings their own sensibility and approach to it.
The character of Ambrosio is also about the nature of evil: does he behave as he does because he was abandoned as a child and because his desires have been repressed by the Church? Or is it that man’s desires, if they’re not limited by social and religious rules, will lead to evil? The question is central to the book, was it as important for you?
Yes, it’s an inexhaustible question, and the film does indeed ask to what extent we are responsible for our own actions. As Ambrosio says at the beginning, ‘people only have the power that we give to them’. It’s also about how much we are conditioned by our childhood and our past. Of course, we are responsible for our acts, but at the same time you can’t ignore the fact that Ambrosio was abandoned as an infant and has been brought up in this religious community, so things can be a little more complicated for some people.
In that respect, I thought there was a continuity between The Monk and your previous films: you’re always interested in the dark side of human nature.
Yes, that’s true. I think that we all have impulses that we can’t always admit to. The question is how we deal with them, to what extent we indulge in them and to what extent we have to control them, and if we control them, whether that might not make them more likely to explode later.
The book blames the Catholic Church for that. Of course, nowadays the Church doesn’t play such an important role in people’s lives, and in the film you don’t insist as much on its responsibility. Did you feel that aspect of the book was dated?
Yes. When Lewis wrote the book at the end of the 18th century, it was probably necessary to criticise the Catholic Church and to denounce its hypocrisies. But even if in some parts of the world it still has a lot of influence, and there is much to say about the dangers of religion when it is pushed to excess and fanaticism, it seemed less important or interesting to me to lash out at the Catholic Church. I was more interested in the human tragedy of this man – and you can replace religion by other things, for instance political ideology – who tries to construct his identity in relation to a discourse, a theory, and who cannot live in real life. Last night I watched Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. It was interesting to think of those radical terrorists who adopt this revolutionary discourse that makes them feel alive, but which is actually fed by fairly vile things, and the ideas in The Monk can be transposed to this sort of thing too.
Vincent Cassel gives an unexpected performance in the role of Ambrosio. Was he your first choice for the character?
It was the producer’s idea. It seemed intriguing and interesting to me, especially because the characters that Vincent played until then were extroverts. I knew I wanted him to play the role with a lot more restraint, so I was interested in leading him towards that and containing all his energy.
How did you approach the film visually? What sort of world did you want to create?
The idea was to create something that wouldn’t be realistic or naturalistic at all, but dreamlike. It makes sense that the surrealists liked the novel, it is so full of dreams and nightmares, even the story itself is like a dream. Visually, we wanted to emphasise that aspect, using things like filters, iris in/out, monochromatic images in blue or red (as in the inquisition trial), and playing with contrasts between very luminous sunny exteriors and dense interiors, also to symbolise good and evil. We were not afraid of artificiality. And just like in the novel, we used images of Spain that may seem stereotypical, but fit with the story. There is a very visual side to the novel, and you feel that Lewis was attracted to Spanish Catholicism because it’s very visual and very sensual too: there is a physical relation to religion, with the icons, the processions and the statues of the Virgin and the bloodied Christ.
There is a great recurring dream sequence in the film in which Ambrosio, standing on the roof of the monastery, sees a young woman in a red cape praying down below in the sun. I couldn’t remember if it was in the book.
No, it’s not in the book. In the novel, Antonia is just another sexual prey for Ambrosio. I felt it was important to give her a special status through this premonitory dream, so that when he later sees her he feels there is more to it than just sexual desire. In the book, the key relationship is the one between Ambrosio and Rosario (Valerio in the film), whereas for me it is the one between Ambrosio and Antonia, because it goes beyond sexual attraction, but he can’t understand why.
You also added the mask that Valerio wears, which is a great idea. It’s very much in the spirit of the novel but adds something visual.
In the novel, the character is hidden under his hood, but in the film it didn’t seem believable. I liked the idea of the mask, of saying that he was disfigured. There is always something frightening about masks, especially if you know that the person behind it is damaged. We spent a lot of time looking for the right mask, we wanted it to be realistic but not overly so. The idea was to have a wax mask that would have a carnal aspect, but also a completely frozen expression.
You also make ample use of Gothic imagery: statues, gargoyles, the cemetery, ghosts, etc. Does it make sense to you to describe the film as ‘Gothic’?
Yes, it does make sense, but at the same time, the term ‘Gothic’ has been so overused that you have to be careful. If you say ‘Gothic film’ to teenagers they might imagine something very different from someone who has studied English literature. For me, it is Gothic in the sense of a type of literature that brings dreams and the supernatural into fiction, but not in the sense of an overload of gore, monsters and creatures.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy