Here is the movie that I re-launch my film page after an unsuccessful transfer of 900 reviews from another hosting site effectively erased them from online view. [Eventually, I’ll attempt to publish at least some of them to the best of my abilities, but for now, onwards with the first of this new incarnation.] Saint Maud is the movie I have been salivating over for almost 18 months following my first glimpse into its chilling, unsettling trailer one September evening in 2019 following its Toronto Film Festival premiere as I sat in a movie theater watching Mike Flanagan’s It: Chapter Two.
Of course, on the heels of having finally seen this via EpixNOW (it is playing in very limited cinemas), I realized that this unique horror movie would be its own horror-show to review. I’d have to approach it with delicacy and tact and avoid disclosing any plot points for anyone who has not yet seen it and is waiting for the Prime release not linked to an Epix membership. Nothing brings on the wrath of a moviegoer than to skim through a film review that basically explains the entire movie and effectively slashes the experience for you until it’s in tatters. Ergo, I’ll keep in mind and venture gingerly ahead.
I do find it a bit strange that although this movie is just out of the oven, not many people have seen it or even know about it–it is getting no television promotion, unlike Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland which I saw last September via the New York Film Festival. Even some avid movie-goers are in the blind about this picture, something I find a tad strange. Perhaps the shadow of 2020 still lingers on, but what do I know about film releases — I just see them and report.
Off we go.
Saint Maud tells the story of a devoutly Catholic hospice nurse named Maud (Morfydd Clark, previously in Love & Affection) who becomes the caregiver of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is an American former dancer of considerable fame who has since been rendered disabled following a terminal disease that is wasting her away. As it can happen to many who have lost their livelihood and feel as though life played them a nasty trick, Amanda reveals herself to be rather vinegary. An early scene in which Amanda spots Maud’s Mary Magdalene pendant which Maud wears rather openly posits her to make a snide comment. The comment would have offended the wearer of the pendant, but Maud is different. A woman who seems to have been struck by divine inspiration, Maud identifies Amanda’s apparent worldliness as a challenge to reform her.
Maud takes it upon herself to take utmost care of Amanda and to her defense, she does become a pretty efficient nurse. The movie blends the physical and fragile, barely-there sensual sequences of palliative therapy with the confessions of both women in a rather enveloping manner that suggests a density to this relationship. You get a sense that these two women are together not by chance, but something else. Prodded on by Amanda, Maud discloses the nature of her faith and her connection to God. Meanwhile, Amanda confesses to having fears of oblivion and what lies beyond death. It is this fear, masked by a cynical smirk and the need to draw into herself every last drop there is to her dark place, that cements Maud on a quest.
However, Maud herself seems to be in her own dark place. [And why wouldn’t she? It is a psychological horror in the vein of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona had Persona dug in deeper into its nurse’s black heart.*] Maud seems to be preternaturally attuned to the dense, decaying atmosphere around her created by both Amanda’s light being slowly snuffed out and her own inner self, reflected as her need to serve and thus, save. Her presence, while not overpowering, dominates the film by her sheer languidness. There are moments of impending dread whenever she is alone (which is constant; Maud is alone even in a crowd). It seems that a much greater force, which seems to be growing within and around her, will finally give way and do what it must.
It is this force that eventually starts to gain traction and manifest itself as the vortex Maud keeps seeing. Not many horror movies are so connected to a character’s mind. Many are content with presenting a character’s plight and the hidden (or sometimes, not so hidden) forces gathering around their lead character, pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the abyss. Maud does that, true, but it manages to do so from her own perception. She wishes to do good, but Hell is a road paved with good intentions.
Rose Glass’ first feature film is a total knockout drenched in hues of chiaroscuro. I don’t think that there is a single shot that doesn’t threaten to swallow its characters whole through sheer truncation of color: as previously mentioned, Amanda’s house already seems Gothic by proxy, bathed as it is in velvety textures of blacks, ambers, and forest greens. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel — Hereditary comes to mind as another movie with rich, warm colors framed by a pervasive sense of black — however, decadence and claustrophobia never looked this richer.
This is the type of movie that lovers of slow-burn movies will revel in. If this is your cup of tea, then Saint Maud definitely lives up to its hype and has been worth the wait as it was for me. Anyone expecting jump scares and over-the-top narratives, however, should look elsewhere; this would not be the movie for you. As for me, I will say Glass’ movie is extremely unsettling and made me ponder on the power of the inner voice and how it can sometimes have an intention all its own for days.