There are brief, powerful moments in Saint Maud where you begin to think that there might be something more at play than what we’ve seen. For the majority of its runtime Rose Glass’s directorial debut plays at the fringes of straight, psychological horror. Helmed by a clearly unhinged protagonist in the form of Morfydd Clark’s psychotically religious hospice nurse Maud, the film is nonetheless grounded in reality. The horror is more psychological than supernatural as we see the malevolent zeal with which she seeks to save the soul of Jenifer Ehle’s decadent retired dancer. The faintest hints of success filling her with waves of pleasure that Maud interprets as the word of God (making it a far more enticing experience than Willem Defoe had in Last Temptation…).
It is a sequence that, in a nutshell, encapsulates everything about Maud’s mentality. Neither her profession nor her faith are motivated by altruism but by her own need for gratification. As Catholic’s go, she is the worst type of fanatic; uncompromising, entitled and utterly hypocritical and the film never shies away from it. She is not one to stoically endure holding her hand over a hot stove but instead pathetically winces and whines with each act of self-abuse. It manages to make her simultaneously vulnerable and terrifying. Seeing the reality of the pain she continues to inflict on herself reminds us that the biggest victim of Maud’s mania, is Maud.
To this end Clark, last seen as David Copperfield’s ditzy love interest, is a revelation. Selling Maud across the spectrum of stone-faced malevolence to the throes of religious ecstasy she strikes as an unnerving figure. Even her imitations of normalcy are off, just enough to build suspense as she performs the most mundane of acts. It’s a tight line to walk to be as righteous and at the same time as insincere as Maud, yet somehow Clark sells it.
Ehle meanwhile is clearly having a ball as Maud’s reluctant ward. Luxuriating in the remains of her once glamorous life the terminally ill Amanda Kohl. She seems more than happy to let a succession of lovers, both male and female, come and go as Maud glares on judgementally. In fact, she seems to enjoy it so much that it’s hard to understand what she sees in Maud’s misguided promises of redemption. She entertains the possibility to be converted all too briefly, with any hints of internal terror at her impending death is drowned in drink and sex.
This is the one place that Saint Maud stumbles. It rushes to bring Maud and Amanda’s relationship to breaking point rather than building a deep and complex dynamic. The sinner and the saviour presenting mirrored temptations to each other would have added even more weight in the later stages. When it becomes clear that not only Amanda but also Maud’s soul may literally be on the line. This is the point where the film makes its biggest turn and does so which such wonder and grounding to remain ambiguous to the very end. Sincere evocations of biblical imagery and hints of the supernatural compound Maud’s self-inflicted body horror. Meaning that the psychological tension that the performances and sharp score had been winding up, suddenly snaps. Breaking into something much more otherworldly.
For all that’s been covered though there is no better mark of Saint Maud’s quality than the fact that it perhaps the scariest horror film of the year. Forcing you to sit on edge waiting for Maud to snap. Pouring over the human grotesquery of its characters, both physical and moral, before entering the otherworldly. By the end it may have you believing that Maud really is a Saint of sorts. A merciless, Old Testament-style Saint determined to save our souls even if it kills us.