Director: Rose Glass
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lisa Frazer
How does one quantify faith? What is the yardstick or barometer? Placing metrics on the quintessentially unquantifiable has been the cause of frustration and burden for as long as there have been organised doctrines to follow. As in film criticism, objectivity is scarce, possibly futile. Those provoked to ask the question are already encumbered by a feeling one way or the other. There’s always an agenda.
Rose Glass’ striking, disturbing and enrapturing new horror film focuses on a pious nurse trying to salvage herself through new-found faith; but with a wrought enthusiasm that smacks of desperation. As though The Lord might be an escape hatch from some very recent trouble. Given this woozily sketched context, are we witnessing genuine piety or hasty attrition?
The young woman in question is Maud (Morfydd Clark). Having moved from public to private care following An Incident, Maud comes to oversee the daily struggles of Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a once brilliant New York choreographer and dancer now losing a battle with cancer on the Scarborough coastline. Maud isn’t shy about her religious devotion. In her myopia, she mistakenly assumes Amanda’s interest in it comes from a place of sincerity, rather than the bored amusement of an encumbered recluse. Peeping at keyholes, Maud discovers Amanda has a transactional sexual relationship with visitor Carol (Liz Frazer). Disapproving haughtily, Maud sets out to save the soul of her ailing ward. God has granted her a mission.
What follows is hard to describe because it is conditional on several character turns and reveals. Needless to say there is far more to Maud than meets the eye. A kind of dual personality is at war with itself, and religious fervor guides the motivations of both halves of a deeply troubled soul.
When first exposed to the trailer for this film some months ago (its release has been delayed; you know why) I was a little concerned by the evident scenes of masochistic devotion. Maud kneeling on unpopped popcorn kernels to flagellate herself as she prays. We’re to squirm and relish her pain, it seemed. Such reductive portrayals of twisted worship have become cliché, especially across horror movies and TV shows sent to us by Hollywood. Was Saint Maud simply more of the same? Another grim ‘elevated’ horror taking pleasure in tormenting a fragile protagonist?
Watching the thing in full, it becomes clear that these moments are merely prepping us for a far more considered psychological freefall to come. The middle of the picture severs Maud from Amanda and sends her on an extended fall from grace. Clark – already a stark and impressive presence in the picture – takes full command in one of those singular performances that points to a career of stunning work to come. She evokes the same emotions felt on witnessing the fledgling performances of Jodie Foster, Sissy Spacek or Samantha Morton. The promise here is on the same scale.
Glass knows her horrors, particularly the more serious titles that have won respect and admiration the hard way. The shimmering lights of the Scarborough arcades are eerily reminiscent of the bleeds of neon from the airport in Argento’s Suspiria, while there are also deft, reverent nods to the likes of The Exorcist and The Witch. But keenly, Glass’ film achieves its own stark modus operandi. One in a lineage but beholden to none, marking it out as an instant classic in the making. There is one sole deference to the Hollywood jump scare; it is also – in part because it’s an anomaly within the piece – one of the most effective of it’s kind that I can remember. I bolted in my seat.
Glass also, with some glee, mingles religious and sexual exaltation, coquettishly suggesting their kindred nature. Maud hears the voice of her saviour. She also feels him. Between her moments of spiritual transcendence and Amanda’s gratifying visitors, the environment becomes a hothouse of sighs and orgasmic shudders. It’s a deliberately provocative blend. Later, Glass pushes further, but drops the smirk. One of the movie’s most horrific scenes is a sex scene as traumas both past and present collide. An effect both gory and grim.
Saint Maud is a dark, bracing watch. Maud is one of modern cinema’s most untrustworthy narrators, as it becomes increasingly clear that the film we’re watching is warped by her subjectivity. Given her detachment from reality, one starts to question everything. It’s possible that all of the film – save the genuinely startling final second – takes place within a skewed second reality concocted by its subject; the sing-song pleasantries of Clark’s narration the sound of Maud talking to herself rather than us sitting out there in the dark.
Ultimately her actions paint a portrait of someone flailing for guidance. Glass’ film is a character study, but it is also a study of circumstance, and how a struggling person internalises trauma. It isn’t as reductive as to say religious belief = mental illness. Cruder films have made that statement but that’s not the conversation intended here. Instead, Saint Maud prods the idea that a fragile and susceptible mind can be its own worst enemy and that unchecked – unsaved in a real-world sense – a person can drift into dangerous territories indeed.
This isn’t news, but the manner in which Glass (and Clark) investigates it is stunning to behold.