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
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  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 
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