There’s a fine line between devout and delirium.
Saint Maud is the debut film of Rose Glass, a filmmaker that I’m sort of familiar with after seeing her short film Room 55 a few years back on a recommendation. All of her shorts are stylish, grim, and contain an energy of psychosexual weirdness that is hard to shake (I do not recommend binging them). I hope you all check out her Vimeo because she’s quite the young star. Now that she’s managed to squeak out a major release during the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve grown all the more impressed with her. She’s got a bug up her ass about traditional sexual/gender roles and religion, and I’m right there having all of it.
Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle) was once an acclaimed dancer and choreographer. She’s now bound to a wheelchair, her body poisoned by spinal lymphoma and her days numbered. Maud (Morfydd Clark) joins the household as a private palliative care nurse, bringing with her an obsession with Catholicism and God and decides she’s going to save the hedonistic former dancer from her sins.
God is, right off the bat, a constant unseen and unfelt presence in the film. Maud talks to him constantly, chatting about her day and asking him to step in and reveal his plan. Amanda isn’t buying the relationship between lord and lass, but the way she really seems to FEEL her deity is appealing to the broken woman. Maud describes his presence as being around her or in her, as a “shiver,” and when this is seen she physically contorts herself in a display of sexual ecstasy that I’m sure rocks the bones of many a holy roller in Sunday Service.
Maud is an interesting character, clearly having turned to religion out of a sense of guilt (very Catholic of her, I must say). She worships pain when it’s dealt in the name of the Almighty. Mary Magdalene is the saint she claims as patron, a prostitute that became a holy figure in near-romantic love with Jesus. Thumbtacks and stove coils are the tools she’s using to pay homage to the lord and atone for her sins, but she really wants to prove her love by converting someone more human. Amanda, on the other hand, lives in what Maud sees as sin. She pays a woman to come over and regularly have sex with her, throws wild parties, and is a teasing flirt with her young nurse. Maud’s desire to convert her is genuine, but given her…ahem…physical ties to her god one has to wonder if there are other things on her mind.
I grew up with the devout, and can readily recognize where the film is headed. We were raised to feel joy in pain, to applaud it as the tests of the Almighty that were beyond our comprehension. If it had a negative outcome it was merely that feisty Satan and his sins, but if there was the slightest chance for a positive outcome then it was merely a task laid out by God. Maud/Katie shows all of these signs, her guilt weighing her down and the pressures of her caregiver position instilling a savior complex that grows as ugly and misguided as any cruelty delivered in the guise of kindness. She burns her hand on the stove, walks on thumbtacks pressed through the visage of Mary Magdalene (her patron saint, a prostitute that became holy and a figure Maud identifies with), and she puts herself in situations that allow her to be open and invite pain so that God may test her further.
These actions are perfectly personified in Morfydd Clark, a performer I’m honestly not very aware of and that I feel will be in everyone’s cast list soon. She’s soft-spoken, has a high Northern English accent (forgive me if I’m wrong on that, for I’m taking a guest based on nothing more factual than Doctor Who), and her physical performance is one of the most unsettling I’ve seen in a long time. She’s not a scream queen, babysitting children and protecting the neighborhood/campground/house from a slasher. Clark is not a heroine, leading the charge against dark forces like Xenomorphs or Terminators. Morfydd Clark can best be compared to Toni Collette in Hereditary: a person suffering from guilt (be it familial or situational) and their pathos leads to something both transcendent and horrifying.
See, Clark’s Maud sees herself as a savior. She feels “God” inside her, and it’s in a way that suggests something more akin to an orgasm than an eating of the transubstantial foodstuffs. Amanda plays along, but she’s not looking for a quickie conversion to save her soul. Maud misunderstands what the world around her is really about and is forced to confront it through the slow act of someone dying. The dancer doesn’t want the caretaker’s pity, she wants to feel something and experience life before that option expires along with her lease on life. It’s a harrowing way to look at death and pain, but Christianity often fetishizes them in a way that’s beyond sexual and Glass’s film asks everyone to take a long hard look at what their text says versus what their behavior indicates.
Adam Janota Bzowski composed the film’s score, and it’s full of creeping undertones and rattling bones that creak and groan their way through an uncomfortable and elating film about destruction and piety. It’s one of the best scores of 2020 and helps an already incredible film exist on an even higher level. It’ll haunt your dreams, that’s for sure.
Comparisons to other films are going to come hard and fast, most notably to Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but I think Rose Glass’s vision is unique enough to stand out from the pack and feel truly special. When you’ve seen her short films there’s a style and a purpose that feels personal, loving, and even a little kinky in its scathing look at everything from traditional gender roles to religious obsession. I felt giddy by the end of Saint Maud, and some of it was the sheer hilarity of the audacity Glass has found. There’s true excitement when you come across an exciting new voice, and this film has been aboard the hype-mobile for a year now. Get in with Glass now and join me in daring to dream about what she could possibly cook up next.
Saint Maud will stream on EPIX and in the usual On-Demand locations on February 12th.