Saint Maud: Profoundly disturbing character study injects life into psychological horror genre

Sometimes, there are those films that just ‘get’ at you. You know the type I speak of. For me, it’s the likes of The Shining, Angel Heart and Taxi Driver. Others might peg works such as Requiem For A Dream, Irreversible or Dancer In The Dark. Disparate as all of those movies may be in terms of genre and overall execution, they share a penetrating facet of utterly dismal and terrifying portraits of human beings laboriously careering towards an apocalypse of the spirit. Slow-burning deterioration of psychological stability, rationality and hope has always been more insidiously devastating than jamming every other frame with frenetic violence. When it’s done properly, the momentum that precedes cruelly shocking arc developments often culminates in a work that gets right into your head and crawls around in there for days, maybe even weeks. No serial killer or demonic entity can ever be as distressing as watching a person(s) locked in tight for inescapable, creeping doom.

This forthright and necessarily noxious brand of existentialism has been gifted with a new incarnation in the form of Saint Maud, the feature-length debut of writer-director Rose Glass. An intelligently written, sombre and deeply scary examination of embittered delusion and solitude, it is sure to reward and perturb the patient and cerebral viewer in equal measure.

The titular Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a former NHS nurse who left her position amid some gruesome tragedy that is vaguely hinted at in the film’s opening. An austerely demure personality, Maud has recently converted to Christianity and, as her narration informs us, is a slavishly pious soul with little time for relationships or anything material. During these interior monologues, she addresses the Almighty and, more ambiguously it seems, the viewer, conveying a mentality that palpably means well yet is mired in a suspicious and judgemental rigidity.

Her latest patient is one Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle) a former pro-dancer and choreographer who had some minor celebrity in her heyday, now 49 years old and fading fast from cancer. As one of two live-in nurses who alternate their shifts providing hospice care, Maud is informed by the other girl that Amanda can be ‘a bit of a c**t’. While there is a slight air of prickliness to the matter-of-fact and caustically witty Amanda, she actually seems to accept Maud’s presence with little difficulty.

Despite Maud’s assertion that she doesn’t have much time for ‘creative types’ as they tend to be ‘very self-involved’, she slowly begins to warm to her charge, openly discussing her unequivocal religious devotion and allowing Amanda to become privy to her experience of God ‘speaking’ to her, which invariably results in Maud convulsing, writhing and gasping in a manner that heavily resembles a particularly intense orgasm. Amanda’s worldly outlook and flecks of narcissism decrease in their capacity as obstacles, Maud growing ever more convinced that her presence there is pre-ordained and that it is her duty to turn Amanda toward the Light and rescue her soul. Certain aspects of Amanda’s lifestyle and philosophy, coupled with our focal nurse’s mysterious past, coalesce into a burgeoningly dangerous obsession that sees Maud doing whatever it takes to fulfil her ‘mission’, regardless of the extreme peril it might have in store for herself and everyone around her.

While the film certainly fits the bill of psychological horror in terms of ambiguous supernatural moments and the fact that Maud’s unstable psyche facilitates an increasingly distressing and suspenseful atmosphere, it appears that many audiences are approaching Saint Maud in anticipation of a continuously ‘oogly-boogly’ experience. The frightening imagery and jump scares are certainly in there sporadically, but this is, first and foremost, a visceral character study. I was pleased to learn that small evocations of Taxi Driver were no coincidence, the neon lighting of the pub-and-restaurant strip in Amanda’s town being heavily reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s NYC (it even includes a brief scene with a street drummer), both films also featuring focal characters who narrate in a delusional capacity as they struggle to maintain a grip on quotidian functionality. Like Mr Bickle, Maud has a saviour complex and some bad ideas in her head.

Clark is scarily brilliant as Maud, playing her with such a deeply enveloped naturalism that she is a character we are ambivalently fearful of and for. She takes a psychotically paranoid and captious view of anyone she deems unfit to be in Amanda’s company, particularly the latter’s younger lover Carol (Lily Frazer). Maud insists that she’s no homophobe, it’s the hedonism that Carol and others embody that is no good for Amanda’s eternal life, Maud displaying something akin to dissociative tendencies in that her gentle sweetness and diametric articulations of venom both feel utterly in earnest. When all is said and done, she’s a deeply lonely person who truly believes she is doing the right and selfless thing, an aspect that makes her downward trajectory all the more harrowing. Jennifer Ehle matches Clark in her equally excellent performance as Maud’s foil, a woman who is due to depart far before her time and who we can hardly blame for being a little spikey and wanting to dredge as much fun as she can out of her final days.

The deeply unsettling, rumbling score provided by Adam Janota Bzowski deftly compounds the plaintive and horrific journey of our heroine into the abyss, a sonic prison that initially makes itself apparent during our first glimpse into Maud’s ‘possession’ by God, a sequence marked by an uncomfortably nightmarish melding of eroticism and body horror. This soundscape has a copybook supplement in Ben Fordesman’s excellent cinematography that showcases the spooky desolation of Amanda’s home and grubby seaside town, the humanity of both women accentuated in unwavering shots that document every authentic tic, glance and posture adjustment that tells us exactly what’s on their mind without the need for verbal exposition. As mentioned previously, the appropriate and intelligently executed Taxi Driver homages showcase Maud’s paradoxical yearning for connection and contempt for those not following her path in one of the more substantive manners I’ve seen in film recently.

An emotionally draining and threatening experience, Saint Maud is nevertheless suffused with believable and poignant reflections on alienation, mental health and the road to hell being paved with good intentions. At a mere 84 minutes, its compactness is no detriment to the thematically and aesthetically rich illustration of proceedings, and the fact that the performances, score and camerawork leave nothing to be desired is quite astonishing for a directorial debut. Glass has displayed that she is very much a filmmaker to be reckoned with here, and if you care about film as an art form and cinemas as a business, I can promise you that venturing out to see it will not be in vain.

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