The Monk director Dominik Moll - interview
The French director discusses his dark and beautiful adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ Gothic horror
'Film has a lot to do with dreams and nightmares,' says Dominik Moll, 'and what I like about making films is that they allow you to show a surface and also what’s underneath. I’m attracted to this double-layer idea.' The German-born French filmmaker takes this idea and runs with it in his new adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s 18th century gothic potboiler The Monk, creating a world where the line between dreams and reality is blurred from the start. The film centres on Ambrosio, a devout and revered priest whose purity is tested when a mysterious masked visitor takes up residence at his abbey. Lewis’s provocative novel had been filmed several times before, but Moll felt there was more to be dug out of it: 'The 1972 adaptation written by Luis Buñuel is much more farcical, like the book in a certain way, but I was more interested in having a character who was really sincere about his faith and what he was saying, so that it would be a real struggle for him to fight against temptation.' In this version, Ambrosio’s religion is credible, but for Moll it is still a construct that will ultimately give way to more chaotic passions: 'Ambrosio is using religion to give meaning to his life, but it’s the only thing he has ever known, and I think that cannot work. You can’t just fill your life with religion or with political ideology.'
One of the most surprising aspects of the film is Moll’s casting of Vincent Cassel, completely against his usual type, as the pure-hearted Ambrosio. The sinister Frenchman is usually the go-to guy for amoral corruptors, as his recent support performances in Black Swan and A Dangerous Method attest, but when Moll’s casting director suggested Cassel for Ambrosio, he was sufficiently intrigued: 'I figured that to work with him, and to go towards a direction where he would restrain all his violence and energy, could be really interesting, because Ambrosio is also restraining all his emotions and compulsions through religion. Of course I didn’t know how he would react to it, but he was very positive right away. Vincent is not someone who will calculate what he should do next to build up a better career, I think he responds very instinctively if he is attracted or challenged by something.'
Moll gives The Monk an almost palpable atmosphere of doom from its opening moments, liberally layering every shot with Almodovar composer Alberto Iglesias’ oppressive score, and overtly referencing classic films that have revelled in dream-like qualities, with nods to Vertigo, Don’t Look Now and most significantly Powell and Pressburger’s convent-set Black Narcissus. He also incorporates old-school visual effect techniques: 'A thing like double-exposure, or super-impression of two images, it’s one of the oldest things that has been done in film, and still it creates new images and things that open up the imagination. It has to do with creating this artificial world and saying we are not in something naturalistic or realistic.' The result is a film that feels like a very dark fairy tale, which is precisely what Moll wanted: 'It is like a fairy tale; these completely invented stories that are full of some very profound truths. That’s why psychoanalysis is always so interested in analysing fairy tales, because there are all those things underneath the surface.'
The Monk is on selected release from Fri 27 April.