As the nights turn longer and the weather turns colder, here’s a happy thought: at least things aren’t as bad for you as they are for Maud. Poor Maud! Or, perhaps, that ought to be Saint Maud. As bad as they may be for her, however, her God has seen fit to take mercy on her and shield her from the pain she dares not waste. No, things aren’t bad for poor Maud, they’re wondrous and glorious for Saint Maud! The nonsensicality of religious faith expressed at its most extreme is given an almighty skewering in Rose Glass’ vivid, graphic debut feature, Saint Maud, a psychological horror with the kind of startling physical manifestations that align it with some of the less excessive works of the New French Extremity (and there’s a gratuitous, though effective bit of Bruno Dumont in here for good measure). Glass’ distinctive first feature ought to earn her admirers both in cinephile circles and among broader audiences – this is hardly Avengers level commercial, but it’s accessible enough to appeal to a wide range of viewers.
Maud works in private palliative care in a dingy British seaside town, dingier nowhere than her one-room flat, whose bareness suits her particular brand of punitive Christian faith. It’s a personal brand, indeed, one involving an alarming degree of self-deprivation and punishment alongside a caustic, blackly comic sense of self-worth. We learn of Maud’s distorted vision of the world, in her myopic view burdened down by a suffering it has no proper awareness how to embrace, through voiceover narration, the first indication in Saint Maud that Glass is embarking on an unusual tour through material that might otherwise seem familiar. The portentousness is not only leavened by the occasional, but generous, comedic aspects, it’s complemented by it, and the pair combine the callous and the profane with the supposedly divine in a manner that better suggests the fundamentals of Christian faith than the majority of conventional cinematic depictions. Agony becomes sublime, joy becomes sinful, and Maud’s inverted vision of life is rendered horribly, delectably real.
Physicality and spirituality are foregrounded in Glass’ rigorous, though not overly frugal mise-en-scène, thus banishing intellectuality, putting an unexpectedly sentimental face onto a stark portrait within an extreme genre. Saint Maud thus attains its potency as a horror picture, aided enormously by Glass’s astute touch with calibrating the requisite frights. Jump scares and gory flourishes may be par for the course in this genre, but they’re rarely managed as finely and as successfully as they are here. And the actors are utterly fantastic, including Jennifer Ehle as a vain former dancer approaching the end of her life in defiant, albeit ignominious fashion, and Morfydd Clark as the titular carer-cum-heavenly body with severe mental health issues. She’s riveting in a complex part, demanding major emotional shifts within a narrow register of overt displays, with Clark seemingly never unwilling to dive as hellishly deep as the script demands. Things are devastatingly bad for Maud, but she’s convinced she’s never had it so good.
This review is from the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. Saint Maud was acquired by A24 at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival from the Midnight Madness section for a 2020 US release.