Saint Maud

(Rose Glass, UK, 2019)


This film has a single great idea, one that I’ve never encountered before in cinema: a voice-over narration addressed wholly to God. Even Robert Bresson’s Country Priest didn’t go quite that far with his interior musings.


Maud has taken (as the Bressonian adage goes) a strange path to get to her God. The story begins with an enigmatic but unmistakeable glimpse of a gruesome primal scene: a patient has died under Maud’s care, it’s a bloody mess (a touch of body-horror care of John Carpenter’s The Thing [1982] works wonders here), and her upturned, catatonic gaze fixes on a sinister looking bug on the ceiling – a creature that later takes on Lynchian proportions, and possibly the power to merge its evil essence with whatever it passes through.


Whatever happened in this founding moment of horror – Rose Glass wisely withholds the full flashback revelation of it – has left Maud in a psychically shook-up state (not to mention posing certain delicate problems of future employability in the medical-caring profession). She (we assume) went downhill to hell for a while afterwards: booze, casual sex, self-harm, the whole works. But hitting rock bottom of that trauma left her fully receptive to the Word of God, with whom she now gets on in such intimate terms. Even when that Word turns out to be silent, Maud is patient; she’ll wait for a sign. Any sign.


Or is all this just in her head? Here is the more familiar hesitation terrain of Saint Maud: visions might simply be hallucinations, epiphenomena of madness. Or they could be indications of a different, higher reality. The chief problem of the film is that it does not fully commit to this equivocation. It’s too easy for us to decide which plane of experience is genuine and which one is false.


Saint Maud sits on the long trail set alight by Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter in The Servant (1963) and Robert Aldrich in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), later duly reignited by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972): essentially a two-hander, psychological game-playing, table-turning drama, often with a queer, same-sex set-up. The other hand here belongs to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle, well cast), a celebrated, Pina Bausch-style dancer and choreographer. Bohemian, decadent, cynical, Godless: everything the newly re-repressed Maud is not. But can the lost sinner be converted? Maud (who has taken up the live-in nurse position) seems to get some encouraging indications from her client, including a shared, quasi-orgasmic, divine tingle.


As a (psycho)drama, Saint Maud is underdeveloped. The tables don’t turn often enough (although it’s good when they do); even Maud’s brief fall back into the louche life feels like script padding. Stylistically, it’s a curious mélange of elements. The domestic architecture gets neither the expected Gothic workout, nor a properly Loseyan deconstruction (watching that house come apart bit by bit is among the great joys of The Servant). The prime location becomes, essentially, a backdrop for freaky apparitions.


On that plane, Adam Janota Bzowski’s clanking, shuddering score serves better than the sometimes fiddly affectations (a little reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay in her Morvern Callar [2003] mode) of the camera work and colouring effects (DOP is Ben Fordesman). On screen virtually the entire time, Morfydd Clark as Maud is, physiognomically, in the vein of the leading players favoured by much current fantastique–flavoured TV drama, from Killing Eve and Devs to The Queen’s Gambit and Brand New Cherry Flavor: her face is set into stony dissociation until it suddenly elasticises, now and again during image-and-sound crescendos, into something spookier.


This brings us back to the central hesitation premise. There’s only one terrific moment – I won’t give it away – when we truly wonder about the status of what’s going on, what we see. But the ending – indeed, its very final frames – leaves us in no doubt whatsoever. At that moment, we may suspect that Glass has a particular, even polemical barrow to push. Ambiguity all the way would have been a better card to play.

© Adrian Martin 16 February 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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