2021 | R | starring Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle | written & directed by Rose Glass | 1 hr 24 mins |
A young hospice nurse (Morfydd Clark), recently converted to Christianity, in a small seaside Yorkshire town, gets assigned to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a famous ballerina with late stage cancer and embarks on a spiritual quest to save the unbeliever’s soul. Saint Maud is a descent into madness movie, and yes, we’ve seen that before, but the richness and mood that writer/director Rose Glass brings to the story in a fully-formed, astonishingly assured feature debut makes the movie something special and riveting.
Reminiscent of Ari Aster’s equally balls-out debut with Hereditary, Saint Maud is another knock-out from the new incubator of horror talent that is A24, a studio that seems to find, promote and encourage auteurs with dark, daring stories that otherwise wouldn’t get a hearing in the mainstream. It’s a slow burn that actually burns to an explosion that actually shocks and rattles. I needed a moment to process what I’d seen after the film reached it’s divine climax. It’s psychological horror art in it’s purest form. A simple descent into madness that pulls us into Maud’s head with increasingly elaborate hallucinations and acts of horrific self-mutilation. With the psycho-thriller mood of Polanski and the visual madness of Aronofsky the film grabs us and drags us to it’s next ring of hell.
Glass’s inspirations seem numerous, classic and cleverly hidden in her original story. A more recent apt comparison may be to Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which takes Natalie Portman down a path from perfection obsession to full madness. Here Glass also uses subtle special effects to break the reality and put us in Maud’s head as she heads toward angelic status. Glass is also clear to illustrate that it isn’t religion that is causing Maud’s obsession, but that she is having a mental breakdown and religion is the vehicle it is manifesting through. Her prayers to Jesus provide the film it’s narration and she claims her acts of self-torture are for him but she doesn’t seem to actually know much about Christianity. In the same way that ballet isn’t driving Natalie Portman insane, but the obsessive competition is, a pre-existing psychosis has found it’s host and is now running rampant. Also like Swan, Saint Maud offers a juicy tour de force role for it’s lead. Clark excellent in a star-making role here.
Adding color to it all is Maud’s isolated walks through the town with lovely tracking street shots. She sits in the middle of restaurants by herself, the film hints at some past tragedy she was a part of and Amanda’s own reaction to her nurse, first accepting and then increasingly cold. Beautifully shot, expertly acted and riveting. Saint Maud is a worthy entry into the arthouse descent-int0-madness movie and a lightening crack of a debut by Glass. It turned over in my head for days afterward. Saint Maud originally debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 and got delayed by Covid and bounced around until it finally was picked up by Epix to stream in 2021. It’s worth seeking out. The 2021 Best of the Year race is officially open.