Saint Maud is a psychological horror exploring the intersection of religion and mental health with a sharp eye to social observation. It is a film that explores limitations in a fittingly restrained manner. At a tight 84-minutes running time, the film packs in all the striking qualities for your pre-Halloween fix whilst introducing a striking debut from writer-director Rose Glass.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is an introverted nurse who takes the career move from the public to private sector, who also happens to hear saintly callings from a divine entity. The film traces the crumb trail of signs that Maud follows on the path to sainthood. Maud’s ambition is not solely aligned with saving lives – to reach her destination she must save a soul. Maud’s new terminally ill patient is her target, the former celebrated dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who has the bravado personality and razor-sharp tongue to match her extravagant house at the top of a hill, as well as a wealth of loneliness to accompany it all. It’s safe to say the plot is a lot more complex than someone’s fall from grace leading to somebody else’s rise to grace. It’s a painting of two women dealing with their loneliness in completely different fashions.
Clark’s performance as the tight-lipped and devoted Maud is marvelously unnerving, always seeming on the cusp of a revelation or complete undoing. Her portrayal of loneliness was particularly poignant, and whilst it might seem like a descent to madness for some, it actually becomes something quite pitiful – Maud not knowing her purpose, or who to communicate with. In itself, this makes Clark’s troubled and obsessive character all the more concerning as the film progresses, she carries a guilt in her character that is difficult to dissect. That is, without Glass’ sharp direction. Despite the film taking on Maud’s warped perspective of the world, Glass steps in and out of Maud’s lense to observe public perception and critiques from the outside-in.
The production design, art direction and set decoration are crafted meticulously by Paula Rzeszowska, Isobel Dunhill and Anna Mould respectively. The sets explore how one inhabits a space. From Maud’s crammed basement studio flat in muted neutral tones that fights anyone (except Maud) who enters, to Amanda’s excess of space in her dark grand multi-story home that welcomes parties full of guests. The sets are reflective of Maud’s state of mind, highlighting how loneliness can inhabit a body in the busiest of bars to the emptiest of bedrooms. Costume design by Tina Kalivas is superb, in particular Maud’s signature saint-like costume that consumes her entirely – a costume that seals Maud as a distinctively recognisable character for many years ahead, the symbolism of the costume is reminiscent of Carrie (1976).
In many ways Saint Maud seems to be on edge, not only in the uncomfortableness of slowly peeling a scab or Maud’s near orgasmic moments of divine communication, but in unleashing something bigger. The builded suspense is edited in flashbacks and nail-bitingly slow scenes by Mark Towns. However, sometimes the build ups wither out which makes the constant expectation for something to happen seem like a missed opportunity to provide greater clarification to the plot. Saint Maud is not a film purely reliant on packing in gruesome depictions and jump scares, even though those few parts are unbearingly squeamish at times.
Against all the teeth-gritting glimpses of gore, Glass manifests Saint Maud into a frightening film because it focuses on what is within, a torrent of something so unknown that no one knows what power it holds. Glass’ ambitious and powerful debut blends both psychological and body horror, spiralling into an entirely original depiction of the limitations of the body, mind and self.
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