Saint Maud is one of those films that got a brief run in UK cinemas in Autumn 2020 some six months after it was scheduled for release. That might partly explain its critical success but it had already been well received at Toronto in 2019. Given the limelight in this way, the film has been extensively reviewed and discussed. It’s difficult to gauge the audience response since cinema audiences were restricted and it will have been seen mostly on streamers. It was selected as an online film for a Friday night film club meeting on Zoom and I watched it on BFI Player. I mention this because Saint Maud isn’t necessarily a film I would have chosen to watch. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the screening but it was certainly gripping and intriguing and I did enjoy reading about its production and discussing it with friends.
Saint Maud has been described in several ways. ‘Religious horror’ and ‘psychological thriller’ are two of the most common. A young woman has a nightmarish experience working as a nurse at St Afra’s Hospital. Leaving her job, she is taken on by a nursing agency and after a year is assigned to be the live-in carer of the terminally ill dancer and choreographer Amanda, who was celebrated for her career and whose house is full of memories of her performances. In one of those cruel twists, Amanda has a form of lymphoma which affects her spine so she can no longer dance. Instead she is drinking and smoking away her last few months in an old house with art deco wallpaper. It soon becomes apparent that Maud is a recent convert to Catholicism who believes that her prayers are answered by the voice of God and His presence. She determines to save Amanda’s soul before the dancer dies. What follows is a narrative with some familiar events and a climactic ending. These are presented with strong creative ideas and real flair. The film is only 84 minutes long and you get plenty of thrills for your money. But the narrative is primarily about Maud so we learn a little more about her. We are given some clues about her past life (as ‘Katie’) and her struggles. Writer-director Rose Glass offers us the possibility that Maud is mentally ill or that she is indeed possessed in some way by the Holy Spirit. Some of us might take these to be the same affliction.
Rose Glass was a convent girl and there are a number of references I found I had to look up. My research suggests that St. Afra is the relevant historical figure, not Maud, although I spent time trying to remember the two royal Mauds in medieval England (Maud is an alternative version of Matilda). The film is set in a seaside town that is inevitably described as ‘bleak’, ‘dismal’ and ‘small’ etc. The location is actually Scarborough, though it is not named and the camera carefully picks out the least salubrious parts of town. I think Scarborough would make a good setting for a different type of horror film, something more gothic – Whitby is also just up the coast. Perhaps the gothic house in Saint Maud is paired with the garish amusement arcade close to Maud’s own tiny flat as a way of linking two rather different representations of decay and lost faith? My gripe is that seaside towns are quite specific locations capable of representing a range of meanings but they seem to be used for only a limited range of possibilities. Today, UK seaside towns are often depicted as decaying, with ‘welfare recipients’ living in what were once holiday lettings. It’s an easy shorthand though it is true that some of the most deprived districts in the UK are found in seaside towns. Although Saint Maud is clearly a narrative about some form of highly personal Christianity, it is also possible to read it as a social commentary about the alienation of many young people, featuring loneliness and self-harm, especially among young women. Maud includes self-harming as part of her devotional practice. I found these scenes among the most horrific in the film.
This kind of film depends a lot on the central performances and here Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are both excellent. Rose Glass is a National Film School graduate here making her feature début after several well-received shorts, including the prize-winning Room 55 (UK 2015). The cinematography by Ben Fordesman has won prizes and the music score by Adam Janota Bzowski has also been praised. I confess I didn’t like the very heavy bass notes in the score. The film has a female creator and there are several other women in the production team. The narrative is very much about Katie/Maud and the women she interacts with. There are three male characters who are there primarily to help to reveal something about Maud. I expect it helps to have had a convent education in order to get the most from the film.
Much of the discussion around the film is focused on whether this is a religious film, a horror film or a psychological thriller – though of course it could have elements of all three. There are certainly a small number of fantasy/dream/nightmare scenes. St. Afra was a 4th century penitent and martyr and that description perhaps fits Maud, though she could fit other descriptions too. Rose Glass was heavily featured in Sight and Sound‘s November 2020 ‘Horror’ special issue. Discussing her influences in writing the script she denied ever having thought about The Exorcist or The Omen and instead referenced filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters and writers such as Iain Banks and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Morfydd Clark watched a lot of Bergman films for preparation and I think that must have been Glass’s influence. Clark also refers to both the ‘grossness’ of scenes and the humour. I’m not sure I really got either but I think I know what she means. I’m not attaching a trailer because I think the ones I’ve seen all include too many spoilers. I think there is partly a problem with how the film has been promoted, especially in the US by A24 and generally in some of the film posters. These are misleading, creating the idea of a certain kind of horror film. It’s interesting that I struggled to find images of the film which showed Maud on the streets of Scarborough and interacting with people other than Amanda. It’s best I think to see the film without too many expectations. If you haven’t yet seen it, do give it a go. You won’t be bored!