German born director Dominik Moll made his name with the offbeat thrillers Harry, He’s Here to Help and Lemming. With his latest film, he takes on a classic piece of Gothic literature in The Monk, which was written in the eighteenth century by Matthew Lewis.
Considered scandalous when first published, The Monk concerns Ambrosio – played in the film by Vincent Cassel – who is abandoned outside a Spanish monastery as a baby. Despite being initially regarded with suspicion by the monks he is brought up to follow a life of piety and abstinence. This all changes for Ambrosio when a mysterious visitor arrives at the monastery during a time when there is talk of evil forces stalking the cloisters.
The forty-year-old monk finds his devotion to the church severely tested as he is introduced to the pleasures of the flesh and the love of someone other than God. This is the start of a spectacular and horrifying fall from grace for Ambrosio.
Recently, we had the chance to talk to Moll about his film and he told us how he combines the traditional symbolism of gothic fiction with dazzling visual styling to create a wonderful moviegoing experience. He also explained how the cinema of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock and Francisco Goya are just some of the influences at work on the look of the film.
Check out the interview below!
We Got This Covered – The Monk was considered to be a salacious and scandalous novel for many years after its publication. Do you think it still holds the power to shock a modern audience?
Dominik Moll – Well, not really, not in the film. I think it could be possible to make another film from the novel which would be controversial but that was not my intention. It was controversial at the time because it showed a monk having sex and it was anti-Catholic, both of which we have become used to. That was not what interested me in the novel and I chose to focus on the tragedy of the love story which is just one aspect of the book.
WGTC – How did you find recreating history as opposed to taking on more contemporary subjects?
DM – The first reason I was attracted to The Monk was a formal pleasure, the idea of being able to play around with the gothic elements which is always fun to do. This has been done a lot by other film makers so I wanted to have my shot at it. But I could see that beyond that there was also the story of this man who thinks that religion can fulfil his life and that he can repress his emotions and compulsions. There are a lot of people who still do that, including me probably.
WGTC – Despite all the supernatural forces at work in the story would you say that it is more natural desires that lead to Ambrosio’s downfall?
DM – In the first scene he says that Satan only has the power that we give him which is true but not entirely because of course we are responsible for what we do. But then again you cannot completely remove yourself from your background which has helped make you what you are and influenced your development. Ambrosio is not responsible for being abandoned as a child and having grown up among monks. What we are and what we do is always a mixture of our surroundings and the things that have influenced us plus our own responsibility.
WGTC -Both The Monk and Lemming contain supernatural themes. Is this a subject that you find particularly interesting?
DM – Stories with supernatural elements are always very fascinating. They are out of the ordinary but they also express the things that are within us. Stories like Frankenstein, Dracula or the books of Edgar Allen Poe all talk about the dark side of the human soul and it’s more fun to express this through fantasy then merely psychological treatments.
WGTC -In both Lemming and The Monk the protagonists’ downfall seem to be at the hands of strong and sexually confident women who get them into trouble.
DM – You’re right, there are those tempting women characters in those films but there is also Antonia in The Monk and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in Lemming who represent the more normal side of women. The sexuality is always connected to our dark compulsions and things you do not necessarily want to admit to. When the main character is a heterosexual man there will be a woman to tempt him but I am not saying that all women are like that.
WGTC -This is not normally the sort of role one associates with Vincent Cassel. What made you think that he would make a good/ bad monk?
DM – It was my producer who came up with the idea of casting Vincent Cassel but as soon as he mentioned it I thought it was an intriguing and challenging idea, especially as it was not an obvious choice. The more I thought about it the more I thought about the physical and sexual energy that he has shown in other roles. To control that was connected to the character of Ambrosio who restrains all his emotions and compulsions with religion. Then when I met Vincent I found that he was also interested in exploring that direction and that he wanted to do work that was different from what he was used to doing. Good actors don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.
WGTC – Is it true that you had to be strict with him when it came to sticking to the script?
DM – Yes, that’s true because he was used to contemporary roles where he had to learn the text and then improvise around it a little bit. The Monk is a period piece but even when I do contemporary films I think it is important to stick to the script as I write them and there is usually a reason why I decided to do something a particular way. As soon as he understood that I wanted it that way then he did it.
WGTC – You have Geraldine Chaplin in the film as a terrifying mother superior. When you work with performers of her stature do you ever feel intimidated?
DM – I am a little bit at the idea of working with them but I have been lucky up to now. Even when they have been stars like Geraldine Chaplin or Charlotte Rampling they are actresses who really want the film to work and don’t have any ego problems. As soon as they see that the director has an idea of what he wants then they work with him. There are probably actors or actresses with whom it would be more difficult as they are more complicated. Up to now I have had people who are great actors but normal human beings.
WGTC – The film is visually eclectic. What was it about this material that made you want to play with this aspect?
DM – Mainly because it is a gothic film and a period piece and at the same time a fairy tale which allows more visual experimentation where you can push some choices quite far. You can experiment with the contrasts, the light, the colour and double exposures; choose to light a scene completely in blue or in red.
WGTC – You have a lot of fun with traditional gothic elements, there plenty of ravens and stone gargoyles in the film. Did you ever worry that you had gone too far?
DM – No, in retrospect I think I could have gone a bit further.
WGTC – One of the most memorable images from the film is the religious procession where a group of men wear large, lit candles on their heads.
DM – That’s not in the book. We did research and came across a photograph of men with candles on their heads and wax running down their faces. We never actually found out if it was a religious procession as the captions were not precise enough. As soon as I saw the photo I thought that it would be a good symbol for penitence and visually striking.
WGTC – You write, or co-write, your own films meaning there is quite a gap between each one. Would you be happy to direct a film written by someone else?
DM – In France, since the nouvelle vague, there is a tradition of directors writing their own films so there are not a lot of screenplays on the market. If I came across a great script I would be happy to direct it as the writing is the longest process for me. It is not a question of principle, more of opportunity. I have been offered a screenplay from America but I think it is also important to establish a personal relationship with the piece.
WGTC – Do you know what you will be working on next?
DM – I am working with a British screenwriter on a Hitchcockian psychological thriller which we hope to be able to shoot next year. That should hopefully reduce the gap a little bit.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to think Dominik very much for talking with us. Be sure to check out The Monk, now in theatres!