It is difficult to believe Saint Maud is a first feature for director Rose Glass. She seems to be one of those filmmakers who arrives on the scene fully formed, with a deep, dark, intimate style, and a fearlessness about playing with genre.

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This article was published 13/2/2021 (294 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is difficult to believe Saint Maud is a first feature for director Rose Glass. She seems to be one of those filmmakers who arrives on the scene fully formed, with a deep, dark, intimate style, and a fearlessness about playing with genre.

Her film is a horror movie that owes something to the madwoman subgenre in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. But it is very much its own work, owing to its fearless religious subtext.

Maud (Welsh actress Morfydd Clark) is a nurse working in what appears to be an English holiday retreat town like Brighton. The first few moments of the film hint at a mental breakdown in her past that has resulted in a religious conversion. We hear her talk to God in the manner of a frustrated friend: "I can’t shake the feeling that you must have saved me for something greater than this."

Maud finds the position of a palliative care nurse for dying dance diva Amanda Kohl (the reliably wonderful Jennifer Ehle).

Amanda poses a challenge for Maud. Slowly succumbing to cancer, she is determined to meet death with a hedonist’s resolve, smoking, drinking and carrying on at night with an obliging young girlfriend, Carol (Lily Frazer).

In her own solitude, Maud experiences moments of religious ecstasy that, more often than not, seem to be tied in with masochistic practices, including deliberately burning her hand on a stove. (She startlingly tells a panhandling vagrant: "May God bless you and never waste your pain.")

Amanda plays along with her, fascinated by Maud’s eccentricity. Amanda even exacerbates it with the gift of a book of William Blake’s artwork. (As readers of the novel Red Dragon know, this is like bear-baiting when dealing with a possible psychotic.) The book is inscribed to Maud, "my saviour."

But the relationship with her caregiver goes sour, which results in Maud backsliding into her own fall from grace at a bar, where her attempts to connect with her peers prove both sad and a little scary, suggesting that Maud’s devotion to God is at least partly due to the fact that she has exhausted chances of human connection.

It all culminates with a reckoning that seems inevitable, and is yet surprising for how it plays out.

One can’t say much about the film’s closing scene except that it brilliantly, unforgettably illustrates the schism between Maud’s mind and body.

Glass, who also wrote the script, has made a gobsmacking feature debut here. She approaches the psychological thriller with an understanding that not everything could — or should — be tidily explained.

The film uses its ambiguity — about Maud’s past, her trauma and her religious conversion — as a tool to ratchet up the tension.

The film comes at a time when religious-themed studio horror films such as The Nun or The Curse of La Llorona tend to deflect from the possibility that religion — and not the devil — may drive the ultimate sin.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.