Early on in Saint Maud, the film namechecks Sunset Boulevard‘s (1950) Norma Desmond. The comment is a throwaway line to describe Amanda (Jennifer Ehle); an ex-dancer now housebound due to terminal illness. The statement is a shrewd one. Sounding at first as a superficial, cine-literate comparison of Amanda to the reclusive nature of one of Hollywood’s iconic antagonists. A once successful woman now halted by circumstance. But here, in Saint Maud, it also becomes a more notable comment.
The comparison runs deeper due to Desmond’s loneliness and co-dependency. A quick search on Saint Maud brings up questions on whether the film can be called horror or even labelled by the dreaded words elevated horror. The latter term being something that director Rose Glass dismissed rightfully as snobbish. The film is less interested in the expectations of modern conventional horror. It is likened more to that of a European drama, deeply invested in the unsettling nature of intense loneliness.
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Shacked up in an Edwardian house upon a hill and situated in a deprecated, forgotten seaside town, the housebound Amanda is being looked after by Maud (Morfydd Clark); a reclusive young nurse who has just recently taken over her hospice care. Deeply religious after a tragic event at her previous post, Maud is stirred by her faith to do what she can to save the soul of her patient. A gambit which goes far past the usual practices of looking after the well-being of the patient. Yet after a chance encounter with an old work colleague, more disconcerting insight into Maud’s life is given. Things are far more troubled than first expected.
It is easy to believe that horror films have had an identity crisis with audiences since the 80s reshaped the genre on what is popular. The conception of jump scares and gore spillage is still considered the definitive descriptor of what is scary, over anything that moves away from those concepts. That is if you question the wrong people. Despite the typical wish for slasher splatter and Lewton Buses, there have been many films, particularly in recent years, which have had the knack of tapping into our current social anxiety in quieter forms. Saint Maud joins these features as a searing study of loneliness. Released at a time where circumstance has ensured that many cannot obtain the solace that they need. The first scene has Maud look up towards the ceiling as one would seek salvation. Only to find a cockroach staring back at her.
Much of the technique used heightens the remoteness felt by Maud. Often cinematographer Ben Fordesman halves the screen of its painterly colour tones, ensuring a viewer is condensed within the environment of the isolated nurse. A film that is not afraid of shadow, Saint Maud happily bathes its protagonist in darkness to show how separated they are from other people, hiding Maud in pitch black, shielding her from a view in a crowded room.
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Other eerier moments are deeply sensory, providing what can only be described as textural shudders. Witness knees kneeling upon popcorn kernels. Pint swirling hallucinations. Nails fitted inside pairs of dirty Converse. Moments in which Maud would say would not be a waste of pain. Such self-punishment is eye-squintingly painful but is made even more difficult to absorb due to the hypnotic and tortured performance from Morfydd Clark. Maud holds a face which has never seen a sincere smile. With a sense of tragedy felt in every line she utters.
The filmmakers make pointed references to the likes of Repulsion (1960) and Persona (1966) as influences, which is clear. However, Maud’s uncompromising pursuit of divine grace feels deeply reminiscent of Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Both films portray women with sordid pasts who become intensely infused with the desire to be touched by the grace of God. So absorbed one can become with Maud’s point of view, that much like Tolkin’s film, we see everything through the tightly wound point of view of Maud. Only in the final moments may we see clarity.
Saint Maud’s beautiful Blu-ray transfer is only slightly marred by the small number of extras featured on the disc. The behind-the-scenes clips are pleasant, with a highlight being a virtual Q&A with director Rose Glass hosted by film critic Robbie Collin. Current circumstances have perhaps curtailed the chance for more to be added on the disc. We will not question if there was even space in a smaller budget to have bulkier extras. Nevertheless, this psychological drama directed by young, British female talent, referencing more opaque films than the usual fare, deserves as much bonus content as it can get. Saint Maud delivers one of the 2020s most provocative female conflicts. With Glass coming across as a likeable presence, it would be intriguing to hear her dig deeper into how she brings out the tension between the performers.
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As a film which eschews the typical style of chills noted in more populist examples of the genre, the question of Saint Maud’s scariness has been raised. However, such tormented souls are always disturbing in a way that other horror films don’t dare to reach. Clark’s portrayal of Maud is the type that lingers long after the film finishes. The restrained mannerisms. The clenched muscles. When Maud tries to convert Amanda, she states that God won’t let her fall, but why do we not believe her? It might be because we have witnessed this isolated figure consumed by trauma and radicalised by her seclusion. There is no Facebook here. No need for YouTube to red pill. Only the Good Book. But with no love and no guidance. Even the voices of angels can sound demonic. And that is scary.
Saint Maud is out now on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray from Studiocanal.