After a long awaited release, Saint Maud, an A24 horror film directed by Rose Glass, hit streaming platforms on February 12th. Saint Maud is Glass’ first feature length film, but it brings a level of artistry consistent with a seasoned pro. From the gritty mise-en-scène, stunning cinematography, and simple yet effective special effects, Saint Maud is technically flawless. Many film students and aspiring protégés are sure to capture stills from this new psychological horror in their script treatments.
Setting the Scene
Warning: SPOILERS ahead
Saint Maud follows a young woman, Maud, played by Morfydd Clark, who becomes an in-home nurse for a dying renowned choreographer, Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle). As the plot unfolds, Maud becomes increasingly concerned with Kohl’s salvation. The film immediately establishes that Maud is overtly, almost strangely, religious. So much so, that throughout the narrative, she experiences orgasmic moments of religious ecstasy. Glass herself refers to these moments as “Godgasms.” The film implies that her religious zeal manifested after a traumatic event in which she had accidentally killed a patient. In fact, mid-way through the film, you discover that Maud isn’t really her name . . . it’s Katie.
In a series of voice-overs, Maud details her loneliness and feelings of inadequacy in prayers to God. She explains,”I know you have something more special planned for me.” This traumatic past was only setting her up to save something much more significant. Therefore, it is Maud’s godly mission to purify Amanda’s soul before her passing. However, when Amanda has a fling with a young woman she met online, Maud oversteps her boundaries. This reaches a climax with Maud swiftly slapping Amanda in the face and Maud’s subsequent dismissal. This is her rock bottom. In her eyes, she has lost her godly standing. This compelled her to venture out for a night of drinking, nonconsensual sex, and general misery.
This latest plot point poses interesting thematic developments; If she can’t be Maud, she’ll go back to being Katie. Why does “Katie” go to a bar to get laid? It rings as a rather stereotypical reaction to the feeling that “all is lost” (and that God has failed her). The film gives cues that she was “promiscuous” in the past; one of the men she hooked up with made a comment and she wears a Mary Magdalene necklace.
Saving Amanda, of course, is just a way to distract her from the fact that she hasn’t quite saved herself. Maybe saving her will prove that she is no longer that fallen woman. She is so ashamed of the “fallen” Katie, that she constructed a new identity (or foil for herself) with Maud. In that regard, Amanda is a version of Katie (the woman Maud wants to eradicate). Further, this represents the extreme guilt and pressure religion – and society at large – place on women.
Amidst this complete fall from grace, Maud experiences her most intense Godgasm (levitation included). This serves to kick start her back onto her mission to save Amanda. Her desire to be “Maud” again is so fierce because by this point, her mental state has been increasingly deteriorating. She resorts to self harm to increase her Christ-like appeal and ignores an attempt by a former colleague to offer support.
Essentially, Maud’s breaking point manifests in the climax of the film. She hallucinates a satanic possession of Amanda in her final moments before she stabs the woman to death. This dreadful deed becomes symbolic of Maud’s complete destruction of Katie. She emerges only as Maud. Therefore, the ending ensues with a final conversation with God (this time he talks back in deep and guttural Welsh), and self-sacrifice. She sets herself on fire in a stellar final shot sequence. This dissent reveals a central theme in Saint Maud; the line between what is God (good) and what is Devil (evil) is quite blurred (if there even is a line at all).
The only area in which the film falls a bit flat is in its attention to Maud’s character development. With a short run-time and shorter than average second act, Maud is not a fully developed character by the film’s conclusion. I’m still wondering who she really is and what motivates her actions. For instance, the Godgasms ring as a visual device to generate unease (akin to other horror conventions such as the jump scare). In essence, they bring style but not nearly as much substance. We are given some back story for Maud and she is clearly a goal-oriented protagonist, but I can’t help but notice some lack of nuance in the mental health representation in this film.
It is rare for psychological horror films to accurately portray a regression into insanity, and I don’t think this character offers much more. For instance, Maud has already converted to Christianity and started her decline at the beginning of the film. The details given in flashback do not provide a clear picture of her mental state before the traumatic event. Was that enough to set her off? Essentially, I’m searching for more details regarding her personality other than this fixation on religion as a coping mechanism. Take that detail away, and it reveals the one-dimensionality of her character (just some girl that liked to party).
Great characters will work on multiple layers and maybe this lack thereof is due to the ambiguous subplot with her past life. The scene toward the end where her friend arrives was an interesting bit of dialogue, but none of it comes from Maud herself. Her friend just expresses how they should’ve been there for her. This doesn’t add any new information about her (we could assume by this point that no one has helped her).
It seems as though many decisions regarding Maud’s character (a shallow representation of a schizophrenic decline, the Godgasms, the fallen woman aiming to restore grace) make her arc fairly predictable. With other recent films drawing on religious themes, such as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (that details unique character concerns such as an intense fear of environmental degradation to represent a mid-life existential crisis), Saint Maud does not bring as much “new” thinking to the psychological horror genre as one might initially perceive.
With a film so technically sound and visually stunning, it is easier to notice when its narrative structure doesn’t stand up to its impeccable style. Clark gave an impressive performance, but actors are still bound to a script. With that said, Saint Maud is a wonderful film and a very impressive first for Rose Glass. She sets a high bar. One more scene with Maud, one more moment where she reacts to something would elevate this film to a nearing masterpiece level in the horror genre; I just can’t help that something was holding me back from truly loving it. That something was a desire to know more about Maud and how we as viewers could connect with her.
Other than First Reformed, Saint Maud also draws striking similarities to a highly regarded film from the Silent Era, The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer in 1928. The film spans Joan of Arc’s trial in which she must confess her reverence to God. Throughout, Joan appears in extreme close up, her face wrought with intense stares and sometimes tears. These moments resemble Maud’s several Godgasms. It is fair to conclude that Maud sees herself as a Joan of Arc figure in which restoring Amanda’s soul is her godly mission. However, unlike Joan, we feel less sympathy for Maud as the entirety of the film follows her dissent into a religious-laden madness.
In addition, her devotion resembles Margaret White in De Palma’s film adaptation of Carrie, and the final fiery shot is just as iconic as Margaret’s death. Further, the Whelsh voice of God resembles the scene in Robert Egger’s The Witch where Thomasin makes a deal with the devil. This film places itself in conversation with so many, and in that respect, it only heightens its artistry. But it also opens itself up to comparison.
Women have directed some of the best art house horror titles in recent years: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Julia Ducournau’s Raw and now Rose Glass’ Saint Maud. All of these are directorial debuts in the feature length format for these ladies. What shows is a keen eye for well-made and thought-provoking cinema. These women have a vision and know how to execute it. Needless to say, I’m ready for what Glass has next in store.