What is our purpose in life? Is it to care for others? Do good work to help humanity? And what if an already fragile psyche creates its own support system amidst this existential uncertainty? Writer and director Rose Glass presents this premise in her first feature, Saint Maud.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a private care nurse. She is pious, praying to God several times a day, asking what his plan is for her. When she arrives at a new patient’s home, she finds her latest charge is a terminally ill dancer and artist Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Once a minor celebrity, Amanda is still sharp, doesn’t suffer fools, and she also lives her remaining days with abandon, chain-smoking, drinking and regularly taking in her lover, Carol (Lily Frazer). When Maud reveals her relationship to God and rapturous seizures to Amanda, she is fueled by Amanda’s acceptance and curiosity about her mousy and uber-religious nurse. Emboldened by Amanda’s gift of a book on William Blake’s art, Maud becomes more determined to save her patient from spiritual ruin, but the extreme measures Maud goes to for her God predicts a dark fate for them both.
Saint Maud was the buzzed-about film at TIFF 2019. I was excited to finally see it, and I’m still absorbing the disturbing, dark story of a lonely young woman and her coping mechanisms. Clark is riveting as the single-minded Maud. Her physical acting was mesmerizing, and her light eyes are dilated with low lighting for the majority of the film, giving us two dark stones that pierced the soul. Ehle paints an intriguing character in Amanda and the perfect specimen for Maud to prove herself to God. As someone raised in an intensely Catholic household, I found the fervour Maud displayed in looking for answers to be fascinating. For me, the blind faith combined with loneliness and her troubling decline was the most horrific part.
Glass gives us a visceral representation of mental illness and religious mania, which seem to go hand in hand. Maud’s mental health abruptly turns during a traumatic event at her former job, even though there are hints that she experienced alarming episodes of mental distress well before she reinvents herself and surrenders to God. There are films like Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion, which take on a more surreal depiction of the effects of loneliness and a woman’s mental state, but Saint Maud is unsettling because of the realistic situations and intense portrayals.
The colour palette for Saint Maud mimicked the soft pastels of angelic art one finds on church prayer cards, and very much like the book of Willam Blake’s religious paintings Amanda gifts Maud. Researching Blake for an article I wrote for Grim Magazine was fascinating, and the parallels between his life and Maud are so well done. Blake, a Romantic Era poet and artist, becomes Maud’s source of inspiration. He had regular visions of God, was assumed to be a madman and rejected organized religion, claiming that to be human is divine, and the imagination was an act of spirituality. Blake is just as significant as Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of women and reformed sinners, in Maud’s journey as God’s soldier.
As an immersive experience, Saint Maud’s score by Adam Janota Bzoski surrounds you with booming awe and creeping tendrils of tension to weigh you down with doubt. It’s a fantastic example of why sound design and score are essential for horror films, and a soundtrack I will undoubtedly add to my collection.
Saint Maud isn’t an in-your-face horror, but it’s a frightening look at how the reality of isolation and sadness catapults some into the comfort of fantasy.
Watch it on digital and on-demand February 12.