When you make a directorial debut it must be considered a win to have the critics fall over themselves to heap praise on your movie. Saint Maud is the first feature film from writer/director Rose Glass and as a bold statement of intent debuts don’t come much better.
Recalling such classic horror movies as Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, or arguably Taxi Driver, Glass has penned a film with a minimalistic approach, yet rich in execution. Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse, assigned by her agency to care for terminally ill American dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Such snippets we see of Maud’s life paint a picture of a lonely woman. Her flat is tiny, her diet basic, and her social life non-existent. Her professional responsibility to Amanda grows into a fixation as she confesses to a recent conversion to Roman Catholicism, and becomes determined to save Amanda’s soul.
As with the best horror inclined movies the tone, direction, and score all underpin an unsettling atmosphere. Clark gives Maud a skillful balance between a sympathy-inducing pathetic streak on one hand, and a delirious intensity on the other. She claims to feel the effects of God’s approval or disapproval. When she feels she has done good her facial contortions almost borders on the painful. Indeed, whatever branch of faith Maud has committed herself to (which may even be of her own creation) pain seems high on the list of requirements, with Maud kneeling on hard nut shells or squealing as she slams her hand on a red hot stove.
Piecemeal snippets of her past are dropped throughout. These carefully pace the context to her motivations and feed into a central core powering Saint Maud: what happens when two people want very different things out of a relationship? Ehle’s flighty Amanda is a great Ying to Maud’s deathly sincere Yan; referring to Maud as ‘her saviour’ in an inscrutable manner one minute and belligerent at the great unfairness of her terminal illness the next.
To reveal much more would be to undermine the effectiveness of how Saint Maud pulls you in. The symbolism of many inexplicable vortexes, along with other such heightened events, craft an experience that pulls at you with inexorable power. The broiling score built around a repetitive clanking motif never lets you settle; each scene is imbued with a thrumming danger that could lurch in any direction.
The final shocking and ambiguous moments leave you with enough evidence (or lack of rebuttal, at least) to decide either way whether Maud’s experiences were an internal or external one. Saint Maud works by carefully constructing a mood piece. You may not ‘enjoy’ the mood it wants to put you in because, well, how enjoyable is it to be stressed out with very little pressure valve release?! ‘Enjoy’ is definitely the wrong word. Saint Maud eschews the jump scares and guts to do what all horror that stays with you should do best: disturb.
Words by Mike Record