Picture it, as if Sophia from The Golden Girls were telling you a story: Toronto, February 2021. It’s cold outside, dark most of the time. There’s no sports programming or extracurricular activities to use up my son’s prodigious energy – hell, half the time there’s not even school. (Virtual doesn’t count.) So he doesn’t sleep. He’s got pandemic pediatric insomnia, and us pandemic parents can’t watch TV at night without him hearing it, running downstairs, incensed that we are getting screen time when his YouTube has been cut off for the day. My wife and I can’t even talk; we must be the quietest of mice to have any hope of him staying in his room. So I watch movies on my laptop with my headphones. Not comedies – can’t risk laughing out loud, and life seems too bleak for laughing anyway. And since I don’t have to take my wife’s tastes into account, horror fits the bill.
My friend Sachin [Hingoo], who you may know as a BBP editor and writer, suggested during this worst of times that I might like Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, and I did. This is the movie that occurred to me when asked about The Performances That Make Us Scream. I thought of it because the weight of the film rests solidly on the acting chops of Morfydd Clark. It’s Clark’s face that convinces you she feels real religious fervour as she massages her throat with a hand covered in dishwashing suds; as she falls on the floor in front of a crucifix gasping.
Clark plays the titular Maud, a palliative care nurse sent to work in the home of Amanda, a former dancer who is dying of cancer. Amanda finds dying rather tedious and amuses herself by playing along with Maud’s Catholic zealotry. Rose Glass’ script doesn’t need to give Maud any lines in the moment that she realizes God has tasked her with saving Amanda’s soul before she dies – it’s all in Clark’s face, a seamless, nuanced transition from religious ecstasy to the expression of a cat with a canary.
This is psychosexual horror at its finest. Maud has hands-free orgasms thanks to Jesus, and sensually handles Amanda’s body during exercise treatments, before boldly stepping into Amanda’s personal life. Amanda’s companion Carol is a transactional sex worker, accepting money in exchange for giving Amanda the girlfriend experience (and who doesn’t deserve some romance as they die?) Maud is very disapproving, and tells Carol to stop seeing Amanda. Carol accuses Amanda of homophobia and she responds that she wouldn’t care if Carol had an “eight inch cock.” It’s shocking to hear those words come out of Maud’s mouth, who up until now has spoken nothing that contravenes her self-image as the picture of piety. But it’s another telling performance moment, as it’s suddenly very clear that Maud had a previous life with a lot less praying and a lot more swearing, and she’s thought about cock before. Maybe she’s thought about it too much, in the way of people questioning their sexuality.
A lot of this resonated with me as a queer girl who was persecuted by religious types in my youth, and maybe Rose Glass is telling me I can ascribe my excoriation disorder to that particular trauma, as there is an intense scab-picking scene that made me squirm in the bottom of my hell-bound soul. Maud’s various mortifications of the flesh escalate in a manner that is horrible and almost understandable, almost inevitable, given Clark’s steadfast portrayal.
The part where squirming turns to screaming in this Performance That Make Us Scream comes at the very end. I can’t recall if I woke my child up or not, but I am not a quiet enough mouse to have stayed silent during Saint Maud’s striking final scene.