The Monk: Re-imagining the Gothic Classic

Poster for The MonkOne of my favorite areas of reading is the gothic, and Matthew Gregory’s The Monk is one of the prime examples of this genre. So, I was very interested to see how this book would be portrayed on film.

NOTE: There are spoilers below, so if you don’t know the story and don’t want to before you read or watch it, you should probably stop reading now.

The Monk stars Vincent Cassell as Capucine Ambrosio. Ambrosio was abandoned on the doorstep of the monastery as a baby and raised by the order. Eventually, he becomes well-known for his sermons, which tend to cause sinners to repent in droves. He is known as a paragon of the faith, which makes his downfall that much more dramatic. When he finds out that a young nun initiate, who has come to him for confession and advice, has lost her virtue, he cannot find it in his heart to feel empathy for her. As a result, he leaves his heart open for sinful temptation, and it begins in a big way. A mysterious stranger, Valerio, appears at the monastery, face covered by a mask due to a horrific accident. Ambrosio himself argues that they should allow the unfortunate man to stay. Later, it is revealed to Ambrosio that Valerio is actually a woman in disguise, a woman so in love with him that she contrived the whole situation simply to be near him. She seduces him, in a fairly clear case of date rape, and then continues to screw with his head via some supernatural craziness. In contrast to her character is that of Antonia, a virginal and devout young girl who asks Ambrosio to come to her home and pray and speak with her ill mother. Ambrosio becomes obsessed with Antonia, and things just generally devolve from there.

Josephine Japy and Vincent Cassell in The Monk

There were many aspects of the movie that were not in the book. However, I thought that it was done well and that it was a good portrayal of the overall intent of the story. Ambrosio is proud and righteous, and as such he makes himself an easy target. There are several instances where he does not have control, such as when the stranger contrives to have him poisoned – a situation that leaves him drugged and defenseless toward her sexual attack. This scene is disturbing, but the result of that scene – Ambrosio’s awakened lust – creates the true complexity of the situation. He is only in this situation due to his lack of feeling for a girl who made a mistake, a mistake based in love for another human being. In some ways he is a sympathetic character, but his behavior continues to digress, and in the end we are almost as shocked as he is to understand how far he has fallen.

Favorite things about this movie:

  • Vincent Cassell – he plays conflicted characters well, and I have always found his interpretations of brutality or lust, the base emotions, to be interesting and on point.
  • The cinematograpy – the colors, and choice of settings are gorgeous, especially some of the scenes in the graveyard and those in the courtyard during the day. The use of red is done particularly well.
  • The way the story was adapted. I liked the changes that were made, which gave it a better flow from the novel. It’s not often that I say that I like the movie better, but in this case I definitely enjoyed the reinterpretation.

I liked this movie and would definitely recommend it if you are a fan of the gothic novel. It holds true to the intent and feeling of this genre.

Byzantium: A Different Take on the Vampire Myth

Movie poster for ByzantiumI came across the preview for Byzantium several months ago on Amazon. Recently, I finally managed to get the DVD and found that I liked the film very much. It is directed by Neil Jordan, who also directed another of my favorites The Company of Wolves, and more recently wrote and directed Ondine. The story focuses on Eleanor, a young girl, and her mother Clara. Both women are “sucreants,” which turn out to be similar to vampires, since they survive on human blood. There are, however, some differences: they are able to walk in daylight, they don’t have fangs (rather, they have interesting super sharp thumbnails that they can grow out at will), and they were not “made” by another of their kind. This last creates the main part of the plot, which centers upon a cave located on a secret island. Sucreants are created by a human entering the cave on this island where they face their dark selves and are reborn to live forever, never aging. There are rules about who may use the island. The main rule is that sucreants may not create others at will – there is a council that makes these decisions. Clara broke this rule when she took her daughter, Eleanor, to the island, and so the women have been pursued by the council for centuries.

A picture of the island in Byzantium

The movie is beautiful, with crumbling buildings and lots of rich colors, especially reds. We see things mainly from Eleanor’s point of view, and she is a gothic-type heroine, tormented by her fate and the inability to tell her story to anyone. In order to deal with this, she repeatedly writes her story down and then crumples the pages, casting them to the wind. Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor as a tender, solitary soul. one who feeds only on those who are old and done with life. Clara, played by Gemma Arterton, is in contrast a born survivor. Forced into prostitution as a young girl, the change to sucreant was for her life-saving, and she continually uses her feminine wiles to provide for Eleanor and herself. Clawing and scraping to exist are what she knows best, and the moments where she shows tenderness for anyone other than Eleanor are suspect and tinged with self-interest. This is a woman who is all about survival.

Clara on the beach

The men that both of these women meet in the present are a contrast to those from the council that pursue them. Both are caring but weakened. Noel (Daniel Mays) is recovering from the recent death of his mother and wants to protect Clara and Eleanor. He provides them a place to stay in his mother’s old rooming house, Byzantium, which Clara promptly begins turning into a brothel. Frank, played by Caleb Landry Jones, is a young man who comes upon Eleanor as she plays piano one evening. His fine features and lovely broken voice enhance the vulnerability of his character, who is also a hemophiliac.

Eleanor at the piano

The story is told both in the present and in flashbacks that explain the history of Clara and Eleanor, and history and the present meet up at the end in a final conflict that will change both women’s lives forever. I found the movie to be beautiful. The pace is slow and dreamy, but if you are a foreign movie fan you will not find this to be a detriment. While the needs and lifestyles of the sucreants drive the plot, the character development is still well done. I highly recommend this film if you are looking for a new twist on the vampire trope!