By the time it is done, the story has given rise to incest, madness, ghostly apparitions, supernatural interventions, a small but significant body count and the most bizarre near-death by centipede that you are likely to see outside of a James Bond movie. But in the hands of director and co-scriptwriter Dominik Moll (best known for Harry, He's Here to Help) it has a dream logic which grips your attention even as it defies rational explanation.
Moll and his cinematographer Patrick Blossier use a static camera and, by modern standards, relatively few cuts. This allows the imagery to speak for itself. And what powerful imagery it is. There's the monastery itself, set in a desolate plain that resembles a Dali landscape, across which the characters go scuttling like beetles. There's the scorching sun, the physical embodiment of the remorseless eye of God. The shadowy interiors, made darker still by the black garb that is the general fashion, a breeding ground for secrets. And lastly, there are the nights, sprinkled with stars, stirred by refreshing breezes and awash with the possibility of romance. Over the course of the film, Moll plays these strains of imagery against each other with the skill of a symphonist. The result is a lyricism which has much more to offer than just pretty pictures.
Cast against type as a man of moral rectitude and rigidly controlled impulses, Cassel shoulders the movie very effectively. And he has great support from Deborah Francois and Josephine Japy, two vibrantly doe-like young actress of the kind France traditionally excels at producing. It's hard to escape a slight feeling that, in the end, the story is slightly less than the sum of its parts, but that's more a reflection on the source material than on the talents of the director and cast. Anyone who enjoys thoughtful, oblique, elegantly crafted cinema, or subtle, understated tales of the occult, will find The Monk a rewarding and exhilarating experience.