Review: SAINT MAUD (2020)

By some miracle, not wholly unrelated to a global pandemic and the possibility that my email somehow ended up on a PR company’s mailing list, I was actually offered a screener! Finally, the day has come! And not only that, I was very happy to see that it was Rose Glass’s debut film Saint Maud. As an always-reforming former Catholic, the horror borne of religious fervour is always irresistible to explore.

It feels like a lifetime ago that I spied the trailer within the recesses of Twitter, but ever since I have been eagerly awaiting the chance to see it. Though I would have preferred to see it on the big screen with other patrons, the lights off and the curtains drawn in my front room made for an eerie substitute.

It turns out my DIY cinema was ideal, reflecting the stifling, claustrophobic world of Maud, a quietly intense home-care nurse embodied by rising star Morfydd Clark – giving undoubtedly one of the bravest performances of recent times. Employed to care for a terminally ill former dancer/choreographer Amanda, played by the ever-excellent and always underused Jennifer Ehle, Maud’s dedication to the job supersedes a past shrouded in mystery.

Mostly seen at dusk or at night, the windswept coastal town of Scarborough, acts as a stifling coven for characters that teeter on the edge of life, death, pain and pleasure. Basically, it’s the religious zealot’s Morven Callar (2002).

Maud’s calling to care for her incurably changeable and to Maud’s mind, transgressive, patient coincides with her increased affinity to her supposed mission from god, or from whatever may be speaking to her. New-found religious fanaticism and a renewed zeal for her daily nursing of an amused but cantankerous Amanda proves a heady mix.

Maud’s world soon becomes an alienating but intoxicating out-of-body experience. And with many scenes set within the oppressively dark walls of Amanda’s crypt-like home or Maud’s dank bedsit, director Rose Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman make a masterful team, manipulating the insular nature of Maud’s circumstances, turning the shadows of the night-time into beatific visions or directing the daylight to shine on the reality from which Maud has become increasingly removed. A scene where Maud ventures on a solo night out in the dead-end seaside resort, is seemingly the final nail, or pin, in the makeshift insole.

Thanks in part to occasional voice-over that mentions ceaseless stomach agony, early on in the film conjuring the melancholic Diary of a Country Priest (1951) by Robert Bresson, we become further entangled within the cult of Maud, with our devoted protagonist hellbent, or heaven sent to cause divine destruction. The powerful forces that engulf her, torment her and comfort her, send Clark’s Maud on a bloody odyssey of such charged propulsion that it leaves you breathless once the credits hit.

It seems lazy to recall the works of Paul Schrader, notably Taxi Driver (1976) and First Reformed (2017), especially as Glass deserves the kudos in her own right for creating this affecting, chilling and nauseating descent/ascent into annihilation. And praise must go to Paulina Rzeszowska too for their production design. Never has a pilgrimage to Scarborough looked so miserable. And that’s really saying something.

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