Private palliative care nurse Maud brings her next-level piety into the atheistic abode of Amanda, a dying dance diva. Convinced she is exercising a divine mandate from the Lord God himself, Maud becomes obsessed with salvaging Amanda’s endangered soul from the ruinous fleshpots of bohemian decadence, at ANY cost.
Is this devout young woman a comforting conduit of angelic purification, or a savage sociopath with delusions of ecclesiastical grandeur?
Stranded in a release schedule pulverised by the pandemic, Saint Maud comes burdened with the kind of festival circuit hype previously enjoyed by the genre royalty of Raw, It Follows and The Babadook. Throughout the endless delays and rejigging, the filmmakers and distributors remained serenely unflustered, allowing the film’s reputation to simmer gently on the distribution backburner.
Having finally seen the movie myself, through a virtual press screening that thoroughly incensed my dog, I can see exactly why.
A truly shattering debut from the implausibly confident Rose Glass, Saint Maud is so assuredly intelligent and brutally candid, it was always going to be unstoppable. Its jaw-dropping set-pieces alone ensuring its gravitation towards classic status through the organic osmosis of word of mouth. Genre fans who prefer their intellectual horror to be sleek and linear whilst craving genuinely goosebump-inducing shocks and explicit violence are in for a traumatising treat.
In a year dominated by female-centric genre flicks of extremely high quality such as The Swerve, Relic, Alone, 12 Hour Shift and The Dark and The Wicked, Saint Maud threatens to eclipse them all in its creeping shadow of horrifying Catholic nihilism.
The disquieting tone of Saint Maud is an ethereal ecosystem, with visceral visuals and slick audio cues as its biotic factors. Not since Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece of mindfuckery Under the Skin has a movie melded these elements with such insidious success. That being said, the sporadic bursts of tart gallows humour, coupled with its deflecting demeanour of A Country Practise type rural drama with public handjobs and foul language, places it on a mischievous naughty step of its own design.
Glass’ ambitious, yet streamlined, screenplay commands a lot from her talented actors. Understated kitchen sink melodramatics, crackerjack foamings of thespian ferocity, soap opera scenery-chewing and moments of glacial reflection in the face of mortality are all rendered beautifully. A great deal of the film’s undeniable power germinates from the commitment and craft of her cast.
Morfydd Clark, last seen in the BBC’s polarising adaptation of Dracula, is nothing short of devastating as the care provider with a perturbing past. Little detail is revealed of her previous indiscretion, other than she has changed her name from Katie and ostracised herself in a minuscule dwelling, festooned with spiritual iconography.
Her former employers have clearly shunned her after a serious incident, implying they would rather brush her under the medical ethics carpet than provide mental health support. A theme that is vastly expanded upon in the films deep dive into the festering loneliness of fanaticism.
Clark exhibits a remarkable range of versatility, nailing Maud’s mood swings between sweet servitude and pent up transcendental fury with unnerving clarity. Her disciplined delivery is sinister enough to convey demented menace yet vulnerable enough to skim sympathy from the surface of tragedy. However, it is in the frequent scenes of self-wounding that her performance is upgraded to utterly heartbreaking.
These episodic mortifications of the flesh are virtually unwatchable. Escalating from bare kneed worshipping on a prayer cushion of popcorn kernels to a hideous act of masochistic shoe management, and beyond. The graphic and sustained cruelty is designed to question the perverted hubris of a God that compels such grotesque suffering in his glorification. But be warned, it will question your horror movie metal into the devilish bargain.
Headonist Amanda is Mauds only tangible reference point in her long-distance relationship with reality. Played with an impeccable maturity by Jennifer Ehle, she keeps a tight emotional rein on the frustrations and regrets that flank the agonizing odyssey of a terminal illness.
Described as a bit of a cunt early on, Amanda is, in actuality, exhibiting no more than a natural reaction to the prescribed hovering of death. A previously impervious woman seeking refuge from the impending darkness in a spunky last hurrah of sexual indulgence and pissed up partying.
Yet Maud views her antics through the twisted prism of her twin coping mechanisms of self-loathing and penitential pain. It is also natural, therefore, that the spiritually castigated Maud should interpret her sybaritic death rattle as a call to salvational arms.
At the crossroads of a crucial narrative junction, Amanda gifts Maud a tome on the Pre-Romantic artist William Blake. Unsurprising given liberalist mantras such as The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom and The cut worm forgives the plow. However, it seems that Glass is more preoccupied with exploring the deeper recesses of a more complex, often morally juxtaposed, belief system. That of his chief influencer Emanuel Swedenborg.
His brand of Christian mysticism and disquisition of personal religious crisis stands in direct conflict with Maud’s firebrand concept of holiness. Angels never attack, as infernal spirits do. Angels only ward off and defend, said Swedenborg, in glaring anthesis of her violent strategy to affix her celestial wings.
Swedenborg and Blake are by no means the only anchor points for the film’s relentless haranguing of blind faith. Nor are they the sole authorities gatekeeping the pitfalls of surrendering autonomy to the vainglory of a vengeful deity. But, they are tactile starting points in unravelling a rich tapestry that seamlessly interweaves intricate philosophical commentary with high-end horror entertainment.
Saint Maud rips the ugly heart of religious extremism from its desolate cavern in the human psyche and holds its quivering mass up to the searing luminance of culpability. In a global society that stoically dodges classing theological mania as a mental illness, it is an earsplitting wake-up call that left unchecked, untreated and underestimated its consequences can be soul wrenchingly cataclysmic.
Not only is Saint Maud one of the best genre films of an already incredible year – it’s arguably the most thematically clinical debut since the icy detachment of Polanski’s Knife in the Water.
Drama, Horror, Theological Mystery| UK | 2019 | 84 mins | Studiocanal (UK) A24 (US) | UK Release Date,9 October 2020 | Cert. 15 strong violence, sex, disturbing images, very strong language | Dir. Rose Glass | With: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight