First-time writer-director Rose Glass comes in blazing with her debut feature, a staggering supernatural thriller with a poetic core
“To save a soul… that’s quite something,” says Maud, a young private nurse assigned a new patient in a seaside town, letting God know how excited she is. Their relationship, you see, is an important, intimate one, a bond like none other: salvation and companionship, coupled with a kind of sensual, euphoric pleasure.
Saint Maud marks the arrival of writer-director Rose Glass as a major, terrifying talent. Her film is as much body horror as it is psychological and poetic thriller, aligning us with the perspective of her fresh-faced heroine, played with wicked strength by Morfydd Clark. We don’t necessarily root for Maud, but we understand her frustration, her contempt at the rest of the world, her deep loneliness and her intense transcendence whenever she feels Him near her.
It’s certainly not one for the faint of heart, but Glass never reduces her characters to vulgar lumps of flesh, either. Horror is visual and sonic in Saint Maud, favouring sensual and physical manifestations over didactic scripting to communicate how faith is visceral, intense, vulnerable – far more than a stuffy theoretical school of thought.
Clark harnesses Maud’s contradictions – she isn’t merely at God’s mercy, feeble and subservient. There is a dogged insistence in her eyes that veers towards arrogance, condescendence, anger (and makes for some of the film’s greatest comedic moments). This women is on a mission. And it’s when this mission is ridiculed that flickers of a more dangerous Maud begin to reveal themselves.
There is always the sensation of something more sinister bubbling under the surface – Glass pens a character clearly carrying heavy baggage from her past, without ever being so boorish as to plainly unpack it for us. Maud is capable of evil things. The thrill lies in letting your mind wander, feeling the goosebumps on your skin trying to point you in the right direction to figure it out.
But she’s in good company, too: Maud’s patient is former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, delightfully twisted), an impossibly elegant woman who thinks her nurse’s obsession is sweet, if a little silly. Both women are fascinated by death, never afraid to push each other’s buttons, explore the secrets of the human body, to get closer to what oblivion might feel like.
It might sound severe, but there are also surprising and stunning images of beauty in Saint Maud. Fireworks pop and crackle as Maud experiences ecstasy; shades of copper fizz against the grey hues of a desolate seaside as she obliterates everything to reach what she believes to be her truest form.
Is she right? Should we all be reaching for a purer, more holy sense of existence? Glass would smirk at us for even wondering. Saint Maud is horrible, often magical, leaving every question of loyalty and faith and satisfaction floating just above us. Material reality is irrelevant – what matters is how Saint Maud gets under your skin without you realising you’d even opened the door.
Saint Maud is now showing in cinemas.Where to watch