British character study from first-time film director Rose Glass, Saint Maud is also a powerful psychological and religious horror. And I loved it.
The long-anticipated Saint Maud is one of the best new horror films I’ve seen this year; and in case you didn’t know, I’ve seen a lot. This isn’t because it’s spooky, scary, or gory (though there are moments of each): those aren’t what I look for in a horror film. It certainly sets out to “horrify and disturb” (criteria of Ted Geoghegan’s that I like), and it succeeds. More than that, it uses some stunning visual techniques and a complex, memorable character to show us something about what makes a person tick. That’s the power of cinema, and especially the horror genre.
The story is about Maud (Morfydd Clark, The Personal History of David Copperfield), a young nurse starting out on a new palliative care placement. She is an extremely devout Christian, and as she gets to know her latest charge, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Pride and Prejudice), a former dancing star, Maud becomes determined to save her soul as well as care for her body. Fuelled by the after-effects of a trauma from her previous job, and by the fervor of her faith, this determination develops into an unhealthy obsession.
Perhaps you know all that already from the trailer. I didn’t see the trailer before watching Saint Maud at the cinema and had simply picked up snippets of its reputation (partly due to association with the distributor A24). So I went in fairly blind, a bit of a risk, but it worked in my favor this time: I got to know the central two characters as they got to know each other, though they both looked at each other through narrow-set blinkers of their very different troubles and backgrounds. And it’s clear that anyone who watches Saint Maud also brings their own perspective (so I should have no qualms disagreeing with my fellow RSC critic). One writer has likened the film to Carrie, and Bergman’s Persona; another to Taxi Driver and Donnie Darko. For me, I saw shadows of First Reformed and A Dark Song, with the focus on female instincts that I last observed in A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We all see something different (or carry out different seeing), and I see that as an indication of quality in a piece of art.
What I saw – and that’s what I’m here to type about – was the depiction of religious faith as an outcome of mental illness. Perhaps it started off as a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism for Maud, or perhaps – due to the severity of the incident she is still reeling from – her swift and drastic conversation was always doomed to be extreme. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman inverts his camera angles at times, at other times focuses on swirling liquid (coffee, water, blood) or close-ups of faces; always reflecting the trouble Maud has in keeping grounded in the real world. The real world for her is a grimy seaside town and “mopping up” after the dying, mind you, so it’s understandable to reach for something grander and brighter as a goal. Clark’s depiction of this nurse, at once both extremist and simple, is remarkable and I have no doubt this role will lead to bigger ones.
I can understand so much about both characters, which comes from Rose Glass’s writing as well as the actors’ portrayal. Amanda’s grief at no longer being able to enjoy her physical being without help; Maud’s difficulty with connection to other people, and her reliance on starting a new life in order to move forwards. The contrast between the two women serves to highlight their individual characteristics: Amanda is decadent by nature and craving sensation; Maud only craves pain, to redirect her focus away from worldly matters. That contrast is in the sets too, with the bedsit Maud resides in between postings bringing home just how lavish Amanda’s house is.
So where is the horror? The word “horror” is often difficult to assign as a genre label, and I’ve read that director Rose Glass is not terribly fussed about it herself. There certainly is some extreme violence and some masochistic scenes which are possibly more difficult to bear as a viewer. But don’t go to watch Saint Maud for those: there are not many. Don’t go if you are a lover of Hollywood horror with jump scares, or over-the-top, gory kills. If this is horror, it is the “psychological” kind. Or perhaps Glass is demonstrating that horror can be found in religion. I put my Christianity behind me about twenty years ago and would be fascinated to read a review of this film by someone who is a Christian now.
Saint Maud is a staggering piece of work, especially as Glass has only made short films until now, such as Bath Time for Channel 4. Whether it is about mental illness, faith taken to an extreme, or simply a provocative character study (and it could be any or all three), I don’t care: the film is going to stay with me. OK, that’s partly because of the shocking moments, but it is also Adam Janota Bzowski’s mesmerizing score, the seductive tension throughout the film as Maud’s fervor grew.
And Nancy, the spellbinding cockroach. I struggled to get my head straight when I left the cinema, and the only thought I was clear about was that I was pleased the cockroach had a credit.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.