by Philip Price
Director: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark & Jennifer Ehle
Runtime: 1 hour & 23 minutes
Hedge your bets. That's the approach everyone, I included, seems to take when waging eternal salvation versus eternal damnation. In writer/director Rose Glass's feature debut, “Saint Maud,” the titular Maud isn't simply hedging her bet though, she's gone all in. As Jennifer Ehle's Amanda discovers early in the film, Maud's conversion is a recent one leading the audience to naturally wonder not only what it was that brought Maud to this new set of revelations, of faith, or of sheer belief, but also why she jumped head-first into the "God-fearing" pool. What is the long, complicated road Morfydd Clark's Maud traveled to reach this destination? While Glass keeps the details scarce and supplies enough so that only the most attentive of viewers might parse together pieces of backstory, what hits and remains the most haunting aspect of this horror film/psychological drama is Maud's belief that putting her well-being in the hands of God is the best choice - especially given the final destination at which she arrives. It should be a safe bet. Everything she's been told about God would lead her to believe she's walking toward the light, but guilt is a powerful drug and it's one the church and religion wield with mighty influence.
Belief systems flourish because they facilitate the interest of those involved - a broad example being a large majority of the population wants to believe in something more after death and therefore latches onto the idea of a God or Gods responsible for everyone and everything - but then comes the question of retention. How do these systems keep believers on the line and continuing to practice the beliefs they share - or more immediately, how do they keep their financial support in check? More often than not it isn't enough to simply go forth and live the lessons of a certain faith or denomination and so the fear of that aforementioned eternal damnation is put in place to keep one in a position of fear, of feeling threatened, or most ironically of all: feeling judged. There is this thing so many believe is the absolute truth, but it's difficult to reconcile why such divine truth would be filled with so many threats and riddled with such tactics of guilt. Maud has seemingly felt judged her entire life, but she has turned to an extreme faith in God in hopes of repenting and being "born again" as the evangelicals like to say. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding comfort or solace in a system of beliefs or an unbound deity. The point of “Saint Maud” is not to discourage, mock, or ridicule such things, but more to target this idea of how guilt and shame are intrinsically linked to repentance and redemption while acknowledging the distortion that can be drawn by a tormented individual; how easily, in other words, what one believes to be a journey towards a truly spiritual life can quickly become a solitary journey into darkness.
Set in the stormy, skittish, and windswept atmosphere of the North Yorkshire coast “Saint Maud” begins in the equally atmospheric setting of a dingy, blue-tinted hospital room where something seems to have gone terribly awry. Maud is the nurse in the room, but we don't see the patient. In fact, Glass keeps the viewer's focus trained on little details in the room rather than on what has taken place as Maud attempts to avert her eyes just as much as Glass does the audience's. Fast-forward to sometime after this incident and Maud is now serving as an in-home caretaker to Ehle's Amanda, a "creative type" Maud notes she tends to not have much time for given their typical self-involved nature. Amanda is suffering from stage four lymphoma of the spinal cord which Maud responds to in her prayers (which also serve largely as the film's narration) by stating, "I dare say you'll be seeing this one soon." As Maud is entering this new chapter of her life, she's looking for a purpose, the reason God saved her and, in that search, she finds as much not in taking care of the sick and dying, but in saving their souls. This revelation of sorts comes after Amanda sees the necklace of Mary Magdalene that Maud wears; a religious discussion then ensues. Amanda comments that she was unaware merchandise was made of the woman widely regarded as a repentant prostitute, but in all actuality seems to have been the "apostle to the apostles" for her work alongside Jesus. While Amanda initially questions Maud with both a skeptical curiosity and slight patronizing tone Maud has no hesitation in relaying her intense new relationship with the Holy Spirit. Maud confesses to Amanda that there are times she feels she's physically being inhabited by God, that it's him reassuring her when everything is good. Amanda, sincere or not - Ehle plays the moment in such a fashion it could be interpreted either way - tells Maud about her fears concerning her dying moment. What will she be looking at? Who will be there if anyone? What will she be thinking about? What will be next? Nothing? Maud swiftly reassures Amanda of God's great love, glory, and plan for her as Amanda simply responds by anointing Maud her, "little savior." This is the sign Maud's been waiting on. Maud knew God saved her for something greater than mopping up after the decrepit and it is this calling to be a "savior" that fills Maud with more God's love than ever before. More than enough to share.
Adam Janota Bzowski's haunting score immediately sets the tone for Glass' character study- which it is more than anything else - as Ben Fordesman's cinematography mimics the mood elicited by the domineering weather along the North Yorkshire coast. This is to say, that while true with all films, the thought of how the character of Maud might be perceived in real life, without the lens of a genre filtering her actions, occurred more frequently while experiencing this film than not. Likely regarded as an odd individual at work or someone we might be familiar with in passing whose most memorable trait is seeming a little crazy, but whose damaged exterior largely goes ignored in order to make our own lives less complicated, Maud is an individual starved for real affection. Genuine love. While Glass delivers small moments as to the catalyst that took her from working in a hospital to doing in-home care what we never see is any indication of a support system for Maud. No family or friends outside a single character who worked with Maud at the hospital and seems to harbor her own guilt for ignoring the signs Maud was spread too thin are ever mentioned. This is brought up not as a shortcoming necessarily, but more in the vein of curiosity. What is it about Glass' filmmaking that makes the intent more interesting than the execution? There are layers upon layers of ideas at play that deal in the perceived behaviors one must abide by in order to gain access to heaven or how people hold onto certain beliefs out of nothing more than being unable to overcome their guilt and yet none of these ever feel communicated in the nuanced fashion Glass seemingly intends to convey them. In short, the film implies much more than it explores and by the time we reach the (admittedly shocking, but also somewhat expected) conclusion, “Saint Maud” feels like a film chasing after larger implications than its quaint narrative can deliver.
Maud's prayers are akin to ecstasy and we see this play out in several instances including a scene where Maud feels the spirit of the heavenly Father in the company of Amanda. Amanda mimics Maud saying she feels His presence as well and Maud, confirming she's as gullible as she seems, takes this as a strong indication of fate. This is fascinating simply by virtue of the fact it tells us just how delusional Maud is or has become, but by having the character of Amanda present and by having her add this layer of disdain we understand there's always been an "Amanda" present in Maud's life and therefore understand how tragic and not just how complicated her life has been. In this case, the narrative ambition lines up with the way in which Glass frames her film, but as Maud begins to willfully hurt herself in order to feel more holy the divide between narrative ambition and what the final product actually conveys grows wider. Maud's actions become increasingly more alarming and while Glass keeps her camera squarely on the pain Maud inflicts upon herself the physical sacrifices begin to overshadow the psychological horrors leading to these delusions. These visions Maud experiences become more frequent after the plot delivers its protagonist a gut-punch from which she'll never return and it's not difficult to correlate said visions with Maud's quick descent into madness given she feels she's failed her mission from God.
What the film doesn't do though, is feel like it always capitalizes on the numerous strands of ideological commentary it desires to analyze and investigate. With passing mentions of William Blake, human frivolity in comparison to true spirituality, and existential dread it's clear Glass wanted to deal with the spirit in the sky in a big way, but it becomes boiled down to the idea religion causes as much if not more pain than it does prosperity. This isn't a large complaint and honestly - the movie is probably better off for it - as exploring a single facet of a larger idea is usually a more advisable approach than trying to tackle all aspects of a main idea in a 90-minute period, but it feels inherent to “Saint Maud” that there is more to discuss than what is presented and that lends to some of the disappointment in the final product. That said, this film does contain one of the best, most skillfully plotted jump scares witnessed in some time. In the eyes of the Catholic church, a Saint is someone who displays faith, hope, and charity in exceptional and consistent ways throughout their life with the cruelest joke of all being that despite her devotion, no matter how earnest, Maud's actions in relation to her faith were misguided in such a way one can't help but to wonder where her poor soul ultimately stood in the eyes of God.