My Verdict // ★★★★☆
Rose Glass’s directorial debut clips any angelic wings and buries us deep in psychological hell. Saint Maud commits entirely to its caustic, moody atmosphere, with its only graceful feature in Morfydd Clark’s gripping central performance.
Maud (Clark) appears to be the ideal care nurse. Softly spoken and sweet, she handles her work with clear-cut professionalism and the religious fervour of a recent convert. She keeps her withering judgements behind sealed lips and closed doors. When Maud is assigned the terminally ill dancer-choreographer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), the nurse feels a calling to save this lost soul. When her mission starts to fail, Maud’s body and soul are tested to the very limits.
Glass’ debut follows First Reformed (2018) and Dan Kokotajlo’s debut Apostasy (2018) as it wades into exploring the thorny relationship between psychological trauma and religious zealotry. While Saint Maud lacks the existential brooding of the former and the family-driven friction of the latter, it makes up for it by being decidedly more profane – even dirty.
From the sickly iodine-coloured palette to the disgusting body-horror soundscape of skin-pricking, scab-picking and bone-cracks, the gritty aesthetic gets under the skin. Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman seem to embrace the disturbing psycho-horror of Black Swan via The Exorcist, with all its wince-inducing injury detail, gnawing tension and demonic surrealism.
The fevered atmosphere is stirred up by its wicked lead. Clark gives us all the cracks in Maud’s personality: her stiff “innocent” smile that hides the disdain she feels, revealed in voiceover. “Stage Four lymphoma on the spinal cord – you’ll be seeing Amanda for yourself soon,” she remarks heaven-ward in one of the film’s rare moment of acerbic humour.
Yet Clark also captures the desperation under Maud’s fanaticism in a way both unnerving and affecting, especially during all the grim, violent self-abuse. In a role which could have so easily been ripe for ridiculous melodrama or nasty “mental-health issues” stereotyping, Clark keeps her performance convincing and pitiable.
That being said, Glass overdoes it on certain elements. Adam Janota Bzowski’s uninspiring score, highfalutin allusions to William Blake, and Maud’s hysterical yet vague backstory weaken this debut. Nevertheless, this is a terrifically unsettling first feature from the promising young director. Let’s pray she continues in this vein.