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“To save a soul, that’s quite something.” So says Maud, the newly God-fearing subject of Rose Glass’s electrifying debut feature, which establishes the writer-director as a thrilling new talent in British cinema. Charting a razor-sharp course between the borders of horror, satire, psychodrama and lonely character study (Taxi Driver has been cited as an influence), Saint Maud is a taut, sinewy treat, blessed with an impressively fluid visual sensibility and boosted by two quite brilliant central performances.
Morfydd Clark, who demonstrated such perfect comic timing in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, is astonishing as the titular private carer nursing Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda, a once-celebrated dancer now facing the spectre of death. Maud’s duties are primarily physical: cooking, cleaning, administering medication and basic physiotherapy. But having recently started talking to God (shades of Emily Watson’s Bess McNeill from Breaking the Waves), Maud is convinced that she has been sent to Amanda with a purpose – to save her from herself.
There’s a touch of Shirley Jackson about the Edwardian gothic hilltop house in which Amanda broods away her days, incarcerated yet still holding court. When she calls Maud her “saviour”, it’s hard to tell whether wonder or contempt lurk behind Ehle’s enigmatically wry smile. Yet Maud, who is haunted by flashbacks, is not as innocent as she first seems. Behind the prim exterior lies a fiery passion that is desperately searching for a purpose, a purpose she thinks she has found in nun-like mortifications of the flesh and in seizures that recall the ecstatic raptures of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
In the US, where A24 has theatrical distribution rights, Saint Maud has been trailed as “from the studio that brought you The Witch, Hereditary and Midsommar”. Yet this British production is actually closer in tone to such German offerings as Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 masterpiece Requiem (inspired by the tragic real-life case of Anneliese Michel), or Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross (2014) in which spiritual sacrifice mingles with self-harm.
Like those films, Saint Maud has at its centre a troubled young woman who comes to believe that God (or maybe the devil?) is working through her, a possibility that crucially is not disavowed. Instead, Glass concentrates on how that belief comes to manifest itself, on the isolation of a character out of step with the rest of the world and for whom the anarchically religious illustrations of William Blake strike a rebellious chord.
None of which is to suggest that Saint Maud isn’t scary – it is! I’ve seen it three times and on each viewing I have found myself physically startled by beautifully orchestrated key moments, although crucially it has been an entirely different moment (a fleetingly contorted face here, an unexpectedly guttural voice there) that has caused that reaction each time. So subtly does Glass negotiate the shifts between intimate kitchen-sink pathos and shrieking supernatural surrealism, often within the space of a single scene, that Saint Maud seems to takes on a shape-shifting quality as it slips between the inner and outer realms of Maud’s experience.
Plaudits to cinematographer Ben Fordesman (who cites Persona and Repulsion as visual references) and production designer Paulina Rzeszowska for conjuring the strangely timeless shadowy netherworld in which Maud and Amanda conduct their danse macabre, and to composer Adam Janota Bzowski, whose eerily prowling score weaves in and out of Paul Davies’s affecting sound designs. Great, too, to see physical effects (including a sly prosthetic nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing) blended with unobtrusive computer graphics to bring us into the spiralling whirlpool of Maud’s world, a world that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled.
Source: The Guardian
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