Belief in a higher power can bring comfort to some, but for others it is a terrifying prospect. There are also plenty who disagree with the notion of a deity, and who live their lives on their own terms. Saint Maud is a film about faith, insofar in that it revolves around a character who believes and another who does not, but this is much more than a debate about God. Saint Maud is seaside folk horror and it is impressive.
The titular Maud, outstandingly played with a nervous awkwardness by Morfydd Clark, works as a domiciliary carer in a British seaside town. She takes a new assignment which involves moving in with a terminally-ill American dancer who requires extensive round-the-clock care. Clark’s Maud is a devout Christian, taking every opportunity to evangelise and spread her message of divine love and forgiveness. Her client, played by Jennifer Ehle, is a firm atheist who engages in what Maud sees as morally-questionable behaviour: she hires a female prostitute, played with charm and humanity by Lily Frazer, for intimate encounters. Meddling Maud attempts to correct her client’s wayward path, but her interventions cause friction. Though Ehle’s dancer plays along with Maud’s religious actions—joining her in prayer, discussing God—she is mocking and deriding her. Things seem fairly normal in this vein, despite Maud’s apparent delusions, until a moment when Maud, in front of her client, is filled with God’s overwhelming love, leading her to orgasmic ecstasy. Things become more and stranger from there.
Saint Maud is a slow-burning and meditative film, but one underwritten with an unsettling tone. The entire narrative is distorted, though by how much is open to interpretation, and as things slowly spiral out of control events become increasingly bizarre. Maud’s belief is rooted in her own interpretations, rather than church teachings, and she is notably not well herself, though her illness is proven to be mental rather than physical.
The writing and direction by Rose Glass is phenomenal, and Saint Maud is an example of how to completely reinvent a genre whilst remaining within its sphere. This is horror as high art, and it is stunning.
The later sequences of Saint Maud, in which we are let in on what she understands to be her relationship with God, have all stuck with me. The subtlety of the darkness embedded in these scenes beneath the obvious darkness on display is horrifying, but those threads are there from the beginning. In a particularly difficult sequence which makes for tough viewing, Maud goes out on the town to live it up, and her interactions with those around her are laced with horror not through anything particularly supernatural, but because of the interplay between those involved. This is a darkness that is ever-present in the real world, and that is harder to sit through than anything else.
What causes Maud’s downwards spiral is left to interpretation, though an early event acts as a catalyst to accelerate her descent. From her perspective, however, she is ascending from mere mortal to the saint of the film’s title. So too does the narrative, as this is a masterpiece. Considering this is her first feature film, Rose Glass is definitely a filmmaker to pay attention to.