As Maud Would Tell You, "Never Waste Your Pain."
Rose Glass makes her full-length directorial debut with Saint Maud (2019), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. It was set to release not long after, however due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most people couldn’t get their hands (or eyes) on it until 2021.
Saint Maud follows the life of a pious and demure hospice nurse, Maud (portrayed by Morfyrdd Clark), as she takes care of Amanda Khöl (portrayed by Jennifer Ehle), a dancer, choreographer, and “minor celebrity,” with stage four lymphoma of the spine.
Throughout the film, it is apparent that Maud has recently been through a horrifically traumatic event, causing her to become deeply invested in Roman Catholicism, and to further believe she is to carry out a divine mission for the Lord. Her room is adorned with a shrine of Biblical motifs and renderings of Jesus, God, and her saint, Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of women, converts, and people ridiculed for their piety… all of which fit our protagonist quite comfortably.
She is complimented starkly by her client, Amanda Khöl, who is blasé, tragic, and inexplicably glued to her cell phone and a cigarette. The pair navigate daily life together, and Amanda continuously provokes Maud about her faith. While it seems as though she is trying to be sympathetic towards Maud, it becomes clear she is mostly playing with her, in an almost antagonistic way. “You have no idea how dull it is to be dying.”
While most days are spent inside the large house Amanda owns, with Amanda trying to feel alive, and Maud trying to save her soul, the second act of the film includes a birthday party for Amanda. Conflict erupts when Amanda’s stylish and artistic friends tease Maud, encouraged by Amanda who wants her to lighten up and live a little while she is young.
It is an extremely tense viewing experience. While absent of jump scares, monsters, or murderers, Saint Maud will have you squirming in your seat witnessing this strange young woman try to prove her intense faith.
The first voice of the film we hear is Maud’s, which actor Morfyrdd Clark expertly stylized as gritty, shrill, and most of all clinical; devoid of most human emotion. While the voice-over is a bit jarring, those with a disposition to the technique (this reviewer being one of them), will make peace with it. It is stylized as prayer; Maud’s constant conversation with God, and the delivery is so meticulous, it becomes an enjoyable part of the film.
As are the performances in this piece. While Clark is by no means a rookie, boasting roles in His Dark Materials, Dracula (2020), and the upcoming Lord of The Rings project, it is clear Maud could define the beginning of her hopefully illustrious career. In layman’s terms, the performance is creepy. At times it is hard to watch. Her intense devotion, paired with her debilitating social skills, leave a viewer feeling both repelled from her and yet, slightly sympathetic. It seems as though Maud is always in the shadows, a voyeur watching the rest of God’s children sin and engage in frivolity.
Which is all fitting, as the film is actually quite sensual, in some very bizarre and disconcerting ways (which is not entirely unusual to the horror genre). The initial sense of this comes with the score, which was expertly crafted by London-based composer, Adam Jonata Bzowski, and winner of Best Original Music at the 2020 Gérardmer Fantasticarts Film Festival and a BIFA nomination for Best Original Score. The soundscape crawls and slinks in sultry and unnerving ways; at times slow and enticing, and at other times rhythmic and primal.
The music compliments the aforementioned sensuality of the piece, particularly during scenes where Maud feels the presence of God himself. It seems her disposition to gasp violently and writhe on the floor when she feels her contact with her Lord, not in a necessarily sexual manner, but in a deeply intimate one. This choice, carried out in a vision other than Glass’ or by a different performer could easily become cheesy or disruptive, but it is a beautiful and moving contribution to the film.
Such is Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal of Amanda Khöl. Ehle is no stranger to challenging roles, famously performing in Pride and Prejudice (1995), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and The King’s Speech (2010). However, her performance in this piece contends with those in films of more notoriety. Her embodiment of the dying artist is subtle, filled with hazy nuance, and a smug style. The audience is left to watch this sick woman reflect on her life from the end of it, with stoic regret, but also desperation. She plays well with Clark, both in harmony and contention, and pairs particularly well with Lily Frazor’s character, Carol. Carol is a character introduced early-ish into the film, and is the antithesis to Maud. She is vivacious, bold, queer, and open. Though like Maud, she is paid to keep Amanda company.
The whole film is set in the wet and dark world of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Which, while expansive and on the sea, comes off as quite dreary and matches both Maud’s quiet manner and ever-present eye. The shots and color grading do a great job of styling the moody visuals, making even the most wide and open shots seem oppressive or even claustrophobic. The interiors function similarly, casting the aforementioned shadows for Maud to slink around in, and overall dampening to the mood of the characters and the viewers. The design of the interiors, particularly the large house of Amanda, is riddled with 60’s patterns and art nouveau furniture. This compared with the lack of much modern technology (save for Amanda’s cell-phone) leave the film feeling slightly anachronistic, and hard to place in time, similar to David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), and contributing greatly to the disturbing nature of the piece.
Saint Maud is a film that has to do with escapism, control, faith, horror, and responsibility. Though through different measures, both Amanda and Maud are trying to escape from their situations. For Maud it is her past, and the pain and injury she has caused, for Amanda it is the present, and the sad reality of her health. Maud obsesses over her faith, in order to run from her actions. She has clearly hurt people, and has indulged in a great deal of sin herself. If she can prove herself to the Lord, she can absolve herself of her wrongs. She need not take responsibility for her actions, if she saves a soul. Throughout the film, Maud preaches to herself and others to “never waste your pain,” and it is as if she believes she can turn her pain into something productive. It is desperate and vigorous and leads to a lot of uncomfortable horror. Both Maud and Amanda struggle to control the small and medial realities of their lives, and wriggle around tirelessly doing so.
Saint Maud is as haunting as it is provocative. It is an extremely slow burn, leading to a truly unforgettable ending. Enjoyable would be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor of the viewing experience, however for fans of deliberate and unique horror, Saint Maud is 100% worth checking out and is a refreshing, though labored, breath into the horror canon.
Viewers with sensitivity to; blood, vomit, smoking, sexual assault, and terminal illness should use their discretion when watching Saint Maud.
The official trailer for “Saint Maud” will give you chills!