An 'Exorcist' for the Modern Age
An apt comparison for anyone who's seen it. Saint Maud is an indie psychological horror film about a young nurse coping with trauma who turns to religion as her sanity slowly starts to unravel all while looking after her ward who is dying under hospice care. Solidly crafted by first time feature filmmaker Rose Glass and starring Morfydd Clark in her first major film, Saint Maud not only succeeds in its supernatural and biblical metaphors, but also as an unnerving horror/psychological thriller hybrid. The production team behind this film does a fantastic job as it's impeccably made across the board - the production value is firing on all cylinders here. Beyond the production, there is much to dissect beneath the surface as far as biblical imagery and religious subtext as it relates to sociopolitical issues. Writer/director Rose Glass really does a fantastic job with crafting a story around our reserved, ailing, and traumatized protagonist trying to find her way in the world, relying on her unrelenting faith to carry her through; only until it relents. Let's dive into where this film largely succeeds.
The Production Value
The production team around this film did a near flawless job on every level down to the cinematography, practical effects, sound, locations and design. The film is quite grounded and hyper-realistic until the supernatural, psychological elements kick in. I just felt the production in very nearly every aspect is pristine and boosts the cinematic experience for the viewer. Rose Glass' first major feature is very well crafted and having such a bang-up job by the production team really highlights those strengths. The editing also keeps us off balance coupled with some of the off-kilter camera angles - leaving us with a sense of impending doom. The pacing is also very calculated in the way that it builds slowly to its eventual fever pitch we all know has to be coming. Glass also chooses to include voice-over narration from Maud to give us a peek inside her subconscious every so often - her state of mind is never in question, which leads us to believe someone is in for a fatal end. I found this aspect of the storytelling to be effective as her faith, or lack thereof, is such a crucial piece to the puzzle.
Production Value (Cont.)
The filmmaking on display is so good that one may not even notice while taking in the frames. The film sucks you in right away and we're along for Maud's bumpy ride, for better or worse (in many cases worse). Many may not be on board with the film's deliberate pace, but the slow-burn is purposeful. Glass is very calculated with Maud's progression and development as a character - and where she's at in her development almost mirrors her relationship with her ward, Amanda. Amanda is a key character here as Maud cares for her, almost falls for her, and spirals out of control once they have a falling out and she begins to question her faith - and almost everything, for that matter. One might interpret she even loses her morals, but once her faith is out the window, all bets are off on her sanity. Then we really spiral out of control with Maud, just as the psychological horror ramps up.
The Central Performance
Morfydd Clark's first major performance in portraying Maud is mesmerizing. She's at the heart of the film - it truly is carried on her shoulders as the entire film follows her descent into madness. Clark has to show a lot of range here as the film is not only physically demanding, but emotionally and psychologically taxing as well. Maud is quite the complicated character, as many religious driven films create one-dimensional characters, this was a refreshing change of pace. She copes with her trauma by turning to religion, secluding herself, pushing away friends, and taking her dedication and devotion to extreme measures. The many facets of the character demand a dynamic performance, and Morfydd answers to that task and more than delivers in this regard. She gives a very committed and convincing performance in portraying the supernatural, psychological, divine intervention-esque and seemingly out of body experiences. Clark embodies this deep and layered character exceptionally well - she shows a lot of promise ahead in what is sure to be a bright future for her acting career.
Symbolism and Metaphor
The symbolic and religious imagery and metaphor is abundantly clear throughout the film, especially if you watch the film multiple times. I've seen it three times now, and it's markedly clear where Glass was taking this story throughout. Maud references her saint is Mary Magdalene when confiding in Amanda, and the parallels to her story definitely can be seen in the latter half of the film. Maud is an outcast herself, and without getting too deep into spoilers, there are particular moments and scenes in which Maud's trajectory mirrors that of Magdalene. Additionally, Maud's self effacing and torturous tendencies throughout the film are reminiscent of very saintly stories in biblical times. Her desire and devotion to suffer as the historical person of Jesus really light her spiritual fire and further descend her into madness. Taking her religious extremism to these levels speed up her mental decay - her faith is tested, her hallucinations become more vivid, and her lucidity is drawn further into question.
Caution: SPOILERS AHEAD.
Such is the case with many saints and martyrs, she meets a fatal and brutal end which culminates in a shocking finale following the exciting and jaw-dropping climax. The sudden cut-to-black, while jarring, is stunning and incredibly memorable - certainly not to be missed.
Religious Themes and Meaning (Cont.)
Caution: Minor Spoilers
The film also calls into question the hypocrisy of religion where its views on sexuality and sexual orientation are concerned with its portrayal of same-sex relationships and promiscuity, as it relates to faith and religious doctrine. There are also multiple interpretations of the film. I had interpreted it one way in my initial viewing, before confirming that my interpretation wasn't entirely correct in subsequent viewings. Many might have a similar experience as we tend to take things at face value the first time around, or at least I did. My interpretation was that perhaps the supernatural elements with Maud "feeling God's presence" might have been a metaphor for her sexual awakening. Her struggle with attraction, loneliness, and intimacy might have stunted her ability to relate or show affection with others, especially when she was growing closer to God and trying to strengthen her own faith, considering the Church's dogma regarding this issue. The fact that Maud grappled with her sexuality and romantic relationships or otherwise is no stranger to us as a story or plot device, but I felt Glass weaved this in well with the Amanda subplot and her character development, especially the scenes in the bar and beyond. Again, this is one of many interpretations I'm sure this film will have. This is the beauty of cinema - we may all look at this film and what it means (or might mean) differently.
Saint Maud is a well crafted, impeccably made, and superbly acted psychological horror film with an impressive debut from writer/director Rose Glass. Morfydd Clark gives an astonishing performance especially when considering this is her first major role. The film is peppered with biblical references and religious imagery which effectively blends horror and psychological thriller elements, much akin to The Exorcist. The inspiration is clear and well placed - it's an apt comparison where religious-themed horror is concerned. While the film might have pacing issues for some, it's a calculated and carefully crafted film which builds slowly until culminating in a fever pitch, an exciting finale, and an unforgettable ending - for better or worse. Saint Maud also succeeds as a fascinating character study - some brilliant character work is on display thanks to deep, subtextual writing and the creation and portrayal of such a complex, three-dimensional character in Maud. It's been said that the film doesn't work for everyone, and while I might agree with this on some levels, I feel that there is enough here that is profoundly interesting and original that can be appreciated by fans of the genre.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
Saint Maud is currently seeing a (very) limited theatrical release where cinemas are safely open and will be available to stream on EPIX NOW on February 12th.