“Never waste your pain”Maud
I’ve often thought that there are two types of religious people; the kind that feel genuine love and devotion to a higher power, in whatever form that may take, and the kind that uses that higher power to fill an emptiness inside them, to prevent something undesirable and sinister from seeping in (or out). Saint Maud’s titular character, a tightly-wound private nurse, is pretty clearly the latter. Her slavish and masochistic devotion to God is a cover for a crushing emptiness and loneliness, and exists to supplant a deep-seated trauma from her past. Maud’s piousness is all punishment and pain, with little joy or any grand epiphany to be had, no matter how she begs for a greater purpose in her prayers. Saint Maud is a film about how someone in the throes of mental illness and trauma might desperately reach out for meaning in the world and in their relationships with others, and how grasping onto the wrong thing can have devastating consequences.
Maud (the outstanding Morfydd Clark) works in palliative care, in the service of the terminally sick and dying in a small coastal town in England. Her life is spartan, to say the least, and her closet-sized one room apartment only allows for the essentials – some simple, unremarkable furniture and a big-ass shrine with crosses and candles. I mentioned that Maud is tightly-wound, but that barely expresses the half of it. She’s twisted inwardly so badly it hurts, achingly pleading with God to give her some sense of her higher calling. Maud acknowledges that treating patients through the last few important moments of their lives should be fulfilling, but it’s clear that she doesn’t feel that. What she does feel is emptiness. There’s a void in her that needs to be filled – if not with purpose, then something else.
Maud’s latest assignment is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a once-great modern dancer and choreographer whose body has betrayed her, and who is now confined to a wheelchair because of a neurological condition. Amanda’s brash bitterness is immediately directed at Maud’s piousness, and she has no hesitation in calling out the pseudosexual relationship that Maud has with God. Maud, for the most part, sits there and takes it but remains committed to saving Amanda from an eternity of damnation. The two develop a bond that only a patient and caregiver can have, but that’s derailed by the appearance of Carol (Lily Frazer), one of Amanda’s outlets for sex. Much as the aggressively prudish Maud protests, she really can’t compete with Carol for Amanda’s attention, and this brings out a more confrontational side of the mousy Maud.
But even with Carol’s interventions, the relationship between Maud and Amanda continues to grow, and seems to benefit both. Amanda softens quite a bit and her disdain for Maud’s religiousness changes to a kind of amusement, and then perhaps affection. At one point Amanda gifts Maud a book of William Blake’s art, which couldn’t be more appropriate to the themes of the film. Religious depictions created by a man who was considered completely mad by his peers is, well, exactly the speed we’re working with here.
Things between Maud and Amanda deteriorate quickly after a confrontation at Amanda’s birthday party, though, and Maud is once again left rudderless. A nurse without a patient isn’t much of a nurse at all, and once again she has a void to fill. Finding no satisfaction with God, Maud wanders the streets, looking for something – anything – to produce a sensation. But the anhedonic Maud isn’t built to seek pleasure, and a cringingly joyless encounter gives way to darker pursuits that recall the trauma from her past. Eventually it does come back around to her twisted version of her faith, and a terrifying release.
Some people will naturally read Saint Maud as an anti-religious text, but I don’t think that’s what wrioter-director Rose Glass is aiming for here, necessarily. As a horror, its surface reading may be one of possession by a malevolent entity, but it’s both more and less than that. Encompassed in this story is a treatise on loneliness, trauma, a woman who is experiencing a rapid mental collapse due to years of neglect and solitude. To me, Maud is the product of an inability to see oneself reflected back in the world. She seeks connection from others in many ways throughout Glass’s film, but only through her interpretation of God does anyone truly speak back to her. It’s why the breakdown of her brief friendship with Amanda, and another failed connection with an old schoolmate are so tragic. They feel like the last hope that Maud has to remain tethered to the world, and once severed, her descent is rapid and horrific.
Glass does an outstanding job of projecting Maud’s state of mind outward into her environment through both sight and sound. The score mirrors the painful contortions of Maud’s body and state of mind, and Glass cleverly uses innocuous sounds – the click of a pen, the scratch of nail on skin – to induce a lasting and disturbing sensation in the viewer. Similarly, the visuals in Saint Maud feel precise and carefully considered to put you right into Maud’s state of mind. That’s the real horror of the film – the forced perspective of a person in deep decline, and Glass’s depiction couldn’t work better.
I actually saw Saint Maud at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, and it’s a testament to the strength of Glass’s filmmaking and the performances of both Clark and Ehle that so much of the imagery has remained with me for that long without the ability to revisit the film until now. I’ve seen dozens of movies since – most of them horror films – but few have stuck with me the way that Saint Maud has. Considering that the indelible images that have seared into my brain aren’t even the more violent or ostentatious horror elements of the film, but small things like the pick of a scab, the image of a foot stepping into a specially-altered shoe, or perhaps this year’s best parting shot, it’s a remarkable effort and hopefully, a star-making project for all involved.
Saint Maud is now available on Digital and On-Demand from Elevation Pictures and A24.