When the name A24 is attached to a movie, all the hipper-than-thou film nerds sit up, let out a nasally moan, adjust their chunky square eyeglass frames and pay attention. The independent production company rarely sets a foot wrong and has released some of the most thought-provoking and intriguing movies of the last decade, titles that include 'Ex Machina', 'Room', 'Moonlight', 'The Lighthouse', 'Midsommar', 'Hereditary', and 'Swiss Army Man', to name but a few.
'Saint Maud' is A24's first film for 2020. It's the debut feature from writer/director Rose Glass and stars the remarkable Morfydd Clark ('Crawl', 'The Personal History of David Copperfield') as a soft-spoken, intensely-religious private caregiver, Maud. She is employed to look after the chronically ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle 'The Professor and the Madman', 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post'), a former dancer who lives in an eerily secluded house overlooking a permanently overcast, unnamed seaside town. The two equally cold but adamantly opposed women gradually begin to bond, until Maud becomes determined to save Amanda's soul. But her faith is rooted in pain and darkness, something that threatens to overwhelm them both.
Christian faith and practices offer a striking visual and auditory language through which horror films can explore the limits of human endurance, the persistence of mystery in a world colonized by science, the realities of death and evil, and the desire for rescue. William Friedkin's 1973 classic 'The Exorcist' was at its best when it kept its religious themes grounded in events inspired by real life. Because most of us - the sane ones anyway - will never see a real demon or hell opening up in a fiery pit beneath our feet. Instead, like Regan and her mother, we'll continue to search for rational explanations for the creeping fears that keep human beings up at night. But what if science fails us? What then? According to Friedkin's film, that's where God - and the devil - come in.
Glass' 'Saint Maud' fashions an original whole out of a patchwork of horror influences. Aside from 'The Exorcist', Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona' also seems to have been an inspiration, as well as Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion' and Lucky McKee's 'May' - all films that capture the way extreme isolation and stress can stir up disturbances in a woman's conscience. 'Rosemary's Baby', too.
The opening scene of the film shows a hospital operation gone wrong, blood dripping and beetles crawling along the ceiling. After that, the story follows a religious girl struggling with her existence. She hears the voice of God and believes that salvation is possible through helping others; perhaps that's why she became a nurse in the first place.
Maud seems both vulnerable (one of the first things that we learn about her is that she is on her period) and capable of committing the most heinous of acts. Is she an angel or a devil? Some argue that religion, at its core, is a response to an encounter with an unknowable, radical otherness that is both fascinating and terrifying, in the face of which our own sense of selfhood and control is lost - what we might call ego annihilation before the wholly other. In her own mind, Maud is clearly on the side of the angels: a recent convert to Christianity, she orders a Mary Magdalene necklace online. She talks to God, rather than writing Facebook posts. When Amanda gives her a book of William Blake's paintings, instead of challenging her dogma it merely fuels more intense hallucinations, which of course she interprets as visions.
Glass' 'Saint Maud' fashions an original whole out of a patchwork of horror influences.
Amanda is an equally ambivalent character. She pays women and men for sex, almost believing that she can no longer be loved. Her illness has diminished her allure. Her incapacitated state is a source of frustration, but it also allows her to treat Maud disdainfully. She employs Maud, and so seems to think she has total power over her. Her battle with the other woman is one of the soul, fought with pursed lips and slight controlling manoeuvres.
While much of the action takes place in the house, one of the critical moments in 'Saint Maud' comes after Maud is dismissed for slapping Amanda. She goes to a pub in search of human contact - any contact. She gets drunk and clumsily tries to pick up some dudes. Bad things happen. Once again, this reinforces her vulnerability.
Maud also casts judgement on Amanda, warning her friend Carol (Lily Fraser) not to see her again. Is Maud the abusive one? Maud is an unreliable narrator: is what we see real, or a figment of her imagination? An encounter with Joy (Lily Knight), who worked with Maud at the time of the opening scene, gives further food for thought.
'Saint Maud' is an insight into a very modern, very lonely existence that is sadly only too recognisable. It's a testament to how effective the film is that Glass aligns us closely with Maud to the grisly end, because she's really just acting on her own twisted nature, still looking for that elusive personal connection that will relieve a lifetime of loneliness. Glass delivers on so many levels as a writer/director that it's hard to believe this is her debut, establishing unease through suffocating mood, she finds fright in stillness, quiet, and isolation.