Following a series of acclaimed short films, Rose Glass blends Joan of Arc and Carrie by way of Persona in her striking, self-assured debut about obsession, faith, and why it’s best if you don’t give that book of William Blake paintings to an evangelical Christian with a penchant for sharp objects.
The flame-haired, sharp-faced Maud (Morfydd Clark) lives a modest life. Her poky flat with its homemade shrine is like a nun’s cell, that is, if a nun lived in a ground floor flat in the coastal town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. She’s a live-in health care worker newly assigned to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a once-lauded modern dancer who now isolates herself in her cavernous home while she slowly succumbs to terminal cancer. A newly converted devout Christian with a sinister past, Maud is desperate for a sense of purpose. And, lo and behold, God seems to have sent her to Amanda’s side to save her from hellfire and damnation before she dies.
In her dark silk headscarfs and dressing gowns rewatching old videos of her glory days, Amanda is the epitome of faded glamour. One of her few visitors venomously tells her that she is turning into Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but she also owes a debt to Little Edie, the headscarf-wearing, eccentric former socialite from the cult documentary Grey Gardens. Ehle clearly revels in the knowing campiness of it all, a departure from her recent turn as the quietly monstrous gay conversion therapist Dr Marsh in The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Devoid of cynicism, Maud believes she’s made a breakthrough with Amanda as they sit side by side and experience a kind of joint, orgasmic possession. “My savior,” Amanda coos, half-sincere, half-teasing. The undercurrent of homoerotic tension rises to the surface, especially as Maud becomes threatened by Carol (Lily Frazer), a sex worker who visits Amanda nightly and indulges her most wanton desires. “Am I indecent?” she asks Maud, wickedly. Yet for all her acid-tongued teasing, Maud does seem to chip away at Amanda’s veneer, finding a vulnerable woman, frightened and alone as she faces a slow, undignified death.
Morfydd Clark, soon to appear in the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials and Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, manages to sidestep the potential hokiness of Maud’s religious obsession. Whether the god she prays to is listening remains ambiguous, but Maud’s steely, matter-of-fact conviction feels authentic, even as Biblical visions threaten to envelop the film’s second half and her faith briefly falters.
Maud appears in every scene, meaning the camera itself is like an ever-watchful deity that glides along beside her as she marches matronly around Amanda’s house. Glass resists relying on jump scares for cheap shocks, instead, she employs some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments of visceral body horror. Backs arch, eyeballs bulge, and nails pierce, the latter in a wince-inducing sequence of self-flagellation that brings to mind the idiom “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”.
With its self-destructive female characters and their twisted, mutilated bodies, Saint Maud embraces the transgression that is female ugliness, right up until its nerve-shaking final moments, and at a lean 83 minutes, it merrily rattles along towards its bonkers conclusion without a moment wasted. Recently picked up by for US distribution by indie darling A24 who have championed other genre crossover hits such as The Witch and Hereditary, the film will hopefully be embraced by hipster horror aficionados. A deliciously gnarly take on faith, sin and female power, Saint Maud is a heady, intoxicating mix of Gothic melodrama and body horror that, for all its silliness and dark humor, leaves a lasting sense of unease thanks to a final image that burns itself into the brain.