Dominik Moll was in London recently prior to the release of his new film The Monk [which opens in cinemas this weekend] starring Vincent Cassel. New Empress Magazine had the pleasure of meeting with the very friendly German director about his latest French film, for which he both co-wrote the screenplay and directed. Both amiable and talkative, Moll also turned out to be refreshingly honest about his film. Please note that there are some spoilers included in the interview. You have been warned.
Q. The Monk is very much a gothic genre book. What was it about this particular book that made you want to adapt it?
Moll: I think, compared to other gothic novels for instance, by Ann Radcliffe what distinguishes Mathew Lewis’ novel is that the supernatural is real, it really existences. In Ann Radcliffe’s novels there are always rational explanations when someone sees a ghost, finally it was the wind in the curtains. [In The Monk] When there is a ghost, there is a ghost. When it’s the Devil, it is the Devil. So that was something that I liked and when I read the novel about five years ago I had of course heard of it but it was recommended by a friend of mine who said: ‘Well I think you should read it because I think it would make a great film.’ So I said that I would read it and what struck me was really the very visual aspect of the novel when you read it. I think that this is also why the French Surrealists loved the novel so much is because when you read it, images really pop up in your mind and the idea [of being] able to play with all of those Gothic elements and with graveyards and devils and ghosts and all that, was of course very exciting. So I think that the first reason or the initial reason why I was attracted to it was probably a formal reason, a formal pleasure. Then as I started to work on it, to dig into it, I started also to want to work more on the characters and on the relationship between the characters. In the novel [the characters] are a bit caricature like because Matthew Lewis really wrote the novel to denounce the hypocrisy of Catholicism. So the characters are a bit caricature like and I wanted to bring more depth into them and to develop really the Greek Tragedy aspect of it and the tragic love story between Ambrosio and the young Antonia.
Q. In Gothic literature, anyone could be the Devil, the actresses playing Valerio (Déborah François) and Antonia (Joséphine Japy) initially look physically quite similar in the film, was that done on purpose?
Moll: No not really. I didn’t do it on purpose. [SPOILER ALERT] Well one does wear a mask [laughs] and doesn’t look like anyone else. If there is a similarity it’s not a problem. On the contrary they are two young women and one of course presents sexual temptation and probably sent by the Devil and tries to manipulate him [Ambrosio] . The other one Antonia, well the relationship Ambrosio has with her is more romantic more than sexual. The attraction he feels for her goes beyond something erotic. He feels that it is something much stronger and then obviously [SPOILER ALERT] she’s part of his family and he doesn’t know it. So the distinction between the two [women] is really what they represent. So the fact that there are physical similarities doesn’t work against that.
Q. The mask worn by a young monk in the film is not in the book. It was your idea. Did you come up with the design for the mask or is based on masks that would have been known about from the time?
Moll: I came up with it [the mask] because in the book the character of Valerio just has a hood over her face, pretending to be shy which didn’t really work for me, especially not in a film. So I came up with the idea of the mask and the story that her face was burnt which also brings a frightening element. The mask for me fit quite well into this whole Gothic atmosphere. From the beginning I imagined that it would be something that looked like a wax mask. It’s like a real face but at the same time because it has a very fixed expression it has something quite frightening. So I don’t know if there were masks like that at the time. But I think the advantage of doing a period piece like this which comes completely out of the imagination of this writer, Matthew Lewis is that it’s not that there are more historical facts and figures that limit you. You can just invent things, [but] the important thing is that they fit into the general atmosphere whether they are historically exact or not.
Q. How did Déborah François who played Valerio, how did she react to putting on the mask and having to perform with it on?
Moll: Well I think at the beginning she found it was quite strange with the idea of having to play half a film with a mask on. But then she actually quite enjoyed it and especially when she saw the result on film and then the fact that the mask is not completely symmetrical. Depending on the light it almost changes expression. Actually it is quite expressive, just by the movements of her head and by her body. I think she was quite surprised and pleased by that.
Q. Did you have Geraldine Chaplin in mind to play the Mother Superior/L’abbesse?
Moll: I think she was my first idea for the Mother Superior. I knew her as an actress and I was happy to have this part to offer her and she immediately said yes so I guess I was lucky there too. I think she’s a great Mother Superior.
Q. In the film there are many approaches to religion, can you elaborate on that for us?
Moll: In the film you have all kinds of different ways to relate to religion and I think for instance Ambrosio he takes religion extremely seriously and tries to do everything as seriously and correctly and professionally as possible which doesn’t mean that he is right all the time. But he certainly is sincere about it. Whereas the Mother Superior represents someone who uses religion for her sadistic instincts and to abuse power and well to abuse those poor girls. Unfortunately it is something that also exists and I think that the only person in the film who has a well balanced relationship to religion is Antonia because she takes from it something positive that will help her in her life. But that is not something exclusive, there is religion and there are also many other things. So she has quite a healthy relationship to religion.
Q. Is that because Antonia is not actually in a religious order?
Moll: Well that probably helps. [Laughs]
Q. You intended that there would be a moment of humour when Lorenzo serenades Antonia is that the case?
Moll: Well yeah it is a bit tongue and cheek when [it happens] . It plays on the contrast of this [SPOILER] murder having happened and then suddenly this young man starts serenading underneath the window. So yeah it is a bit tongue and cheek.
Q. The casting of Vincent Cassel seems like a bit of a coup because he’s playing against his normal screen personae. What was it like working with him in this ‘new’ way for him?
Moll: It wasn’t like a fight, when we first met and we talked about the part and he knew that I wanted to go into that direction. It was one of the reasons why he wanted to play the part because he felt that it meant exploring something different and a different way of acting and a more restrained way of acting. Like all good actors he’s curious to explore new things and not to do the same thing over and over again. So because he felt that this was a different direction from what he had done he, he said yes.
Q. When a ghosts appears during the film, that is the most obvious supernatural moment in the film. It’s a physically very bright moment, why did you go with that sort of effect rather than having her more the ghost more as a shadow as with the rest of the film?
Moll: I think we went over the top a bit with that [Laughs] . When I recently saw it again I thought ‘Omph that is very bright and we should have made it [the ghost] more transparent.’ Yes I think that we over did it!
The Monk is out in cinemas now.