It only takes a few seconds of Saint Maud – of dripping blood, a dead body contorted on a gurney, a young woman’s bloodied and deranged face staring at an insect on the ceiling, accompanied by an industrial din more likely to score the gates of hell than the pearly ones – to make us realise that the film’s title is a tad ironic.
And that irony becomes even more entrenched, and mordantly witty, when we find that for the eponymous hospital nurse turned private carer (references no doubt fudged), sainthood would be most welcome.
“What’s the plan?” she asks of God, with whom she frequently converses, in and out of prayer, and who she claims speaks back. “You saved me for something greater than this.”
This, is an English seaside town, where the mousey, intense, alienated Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a fish out of water amongst the Coney Island arcades, fish and chips and sleazy bar life. Home here is a tiny, grey, depressing bedsit. But after that startling prologue, we find her packing her case for her next, live-in assignment.
Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) is an American in the last stage of a terminal illness, alone in her large mansion in the hills above the town. At first glance, the nurse is unimpressed. “Dancer, choreographer, minor celebrity,” she reports to the voice in her head. “As you know, I have very little time for creative types, as they tend to be rather self-involved.”
The chain-smoking patient does have a touch of the Norma Desmond in her affectations and a decadent side that horrifies Maud. However, when Amanda shows polite curiosity in her carer’s faith, Maud sees her chance. “Don’t get me wrong. Palliative care is noble work.” To God again. “But to save a soul, that’s quite something.”
It’s been a year since writer/director Rose Glass’s feature debut premiered at the 2019 London Film Festival, where this cracking psychological horror won an honourable mention in the best film competition. It’s now in cinemas and, COVID permitting, should be seen on a big screen, where Glass’s expert command of atmosphere, tension and horror set piece can be best experienced. She’s a very exciting new British talent.
There are some clear inspirations, from Polanski and Friedkin to Peter Strickland. At the same time, Glass’s filmmaking is quite singular (it’s worth checking out her acclaimed short film, Room 55, online) with a carefully considered aesthetic, a strangeness and a tightly-coiled chill all its own; and her writing, here, cannily uses horror to investigate something that society is desperately trying to get to grips with right now, namely isolation and mental illness.
Despite the amusing one-liners, there’s no doubt that Maud is a very disturbed young woman, her new-found religious fervour filling a deep well of need and desperation, but sending her full-pelt towards psychosis. When she prays, “Don’t let me fall”, its with a pathos that cuts to the quick. There is already evidence of self-harm, with more to come. The inevitable rejection by Amanda will send her over the edge. The question is, to whom is she the biggest danger – herself, or others?
Glass imbues the character with ambiguity, creating a question over whether Maud’s visions and physical experiences – including two fabulous, hair-tingling moments straight out of The Exorcist – are a matter of fantasy or some genuine religious ecstasy.
This ambiguity is heightened by the mood created by Glass and her production team. Every horror needs a good house, and with Amanda’s production designer Paulina Rzeszowksa has created spacious interiors that can seem spacious and stylish when lit – with an intricately patterned, Seventies bohemian vibe – but whose muted colours suddenly fall into intimidating shadow. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman tips his image sideways, upside down, into deep focus and an array of close-ups, all delineating Maud’s state of mind – as does composer Adam Janota-Bzowski’s atonal soundscape, whose jarring bursts of what sounds like foghorns evokes the score of another recent psychological horror, The Lighthouse. It’s certainly no fun inside Maud’s head.
Morfydd Clark has been excelling in supporting roles for a time now (The Falling, Love & Friendship, His Dark Materials) so hats off to Glass for bringing the actress front and centre. Using her lilting, slightly childlike Welsh accent to good effect, she gives a finely-detailed, discomforting, edge-of-the-cliff portrayal of a woman at once vulnerable and dangerous. She’s well-matched by Ehle, bedbound but deliciously effective as another character who plays with our sympathies.
Much to her credit, Glass doesn’t rush for a body count or easy thrills, taking her time, slowly cranking up the creepiness and disturbance. When the conclusion comes, it has a terrible logic to it.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk