Saint Maud, from director Rose Glass, finds religious obsession and psycho-sexual horror on the Whitby coast. The film is a surprisingly underhanded showcase for debut director Glass, not to mention her crew of British talent. Following in the footsteps of DePalma and Friedkin, the latest genre offering from A24 follows the studio’s penchant for quietly charged and technically enthralling genre films.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a quiet devoutly religious private nurse hired to look after Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a terminally ill ex-dancer. As Maud comes to terms with the limits of physical care, her reliance on faith, along with overt isolation from people around her, threaten to push both women into a nightmare of spiritual terror.
The religious horror from first-time director Glass is a carefully crafted study in isolation and paranoia. For both of its central characters loneliness is a sort of salve and a trap. Maud’s desperation for some kind of catharsis, a moment of religious redemption for her suggested role in an accidental death, pushes her further away from reality. Amanda, on the other hand, has plenty of friends, is loved, and successful, but the cruelty of her condition and impending death are still forces to be reckoned with. Forces that never push her towards Maud’s piety, instead articulating themselves in either knee-jerk rage or a kind of queer erotic intimacy that can do little but shock Maud.
Glass never puts Maud in a box with villainous fanatics like Carrie’s Margaret White, instead finding horror in the unchecked nature of her fantasy. It is testament to Clark’s performance and Glass’s script that we are nothing but sympathetic towards Maud. It is a choice which arguably gives the film’s chills more clout. Like, say, Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Simon Rumley’s The Living and the Dead or even Joker (though without the exploitation), Saint Maud is a melancholy film in the form of a burning fuse. From that first instance of veiled queerness, and Maud’s own reaction to it, the countdown to something tragic begins. Glass evokes the same stark sympathy in Maude as De Palma did with Carrie, though the tragedy of her final actions is less understandable, more innately horrifying, than a telekinetic bloodbath against a bunch of bullies.
Rose Glass has crafted a gorgeous piece of Brit-Gothic which, though light on chills, flows over the viewer like a stark evocative visual poem. The bizarre otherworld of Scarborough at night; lurid reds and arcade lights, noisy bars, jeering crowds of partying youngsters, is offset by the decrepitude of Maud’s bedsit and the warm sensual isolation of Amanda’s boudoir. It all feels like a distant memory summoned by the rediscovery of a box of old photos. The richness of the textures and construction of the images feels crammed with memories, there’s a vibrance at work but it never feels pleasant, only sickly. It’s a masterful visual feat and cinematographer Ben Fordesman is clearly a guy to watch.
For every Margaret White, there is a Carrie or a Maud; a sympathetic figure being moulded not just by extreme faith, but a lack of psychological and social support. In a modern world all too familiar with religious-inspired violence, Saint Maud offers a surprisingly nuanced look at what pushes people into situations of obsession and violence.
Dir. Rose Glass
Stars. Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Fraser