A slender but unholy cross between “First Reformed” and “The Exorcist,” Rose Glass’ taut and trembling “Saint Maud” transmutes a young woman’s spiritual crisis into such a refined story of body horror that genre fans might feel like they’re having a religious experience. Of course, even the most overzealous viewers will find there’s always room for doubt — and that’s where the Devil gets in. A palliative care nurse in a dreary town somewhere along the British coast, the intensely devout Maud (a divine Morfydd Clark) is doing her best to seal the area around her soul. That seems to be one hell of a struggle. Soft-spoken but vibrating with serial killer intensity, Maud seldom opens her mouth when she’s not talking to God inside her acetic little apartment, reminding her lord and savior that she was meant for something greater.
“Never waste your pain” is the closest thing that Maud has to a motto, and while we don’t learn the details of the grisly medical disaster that’s glimpsed in the film’s prologue, whatever happened was bad enough that she can only rationalize it as part of God’s plan. From the moment that she first arrives at the creaky old mansion where her latest patient is dying from end stage lymphoma, it’s clear that Maud intends to make use of her trauma in any way that she can.
Amanda Köhl (the extraordinary Jennifer Ehle) is not going to make that easy. A brittle and embittered modern dancer whose body was her temple before it betrayed her, Amanda is looking for someone to wash her back, not save her soul. And she isn’t the type to mince words about that; Ehle layers the character with the abrasive cartilage of someone who’s angry at the world — Amanda’s previous caretaker sums it up with a different c-word — but she’s also inflected with the loneliness of a shut-in, and the unmoored curiosity of a person who’s looking at everything they see for the last time. We see this story through her eyes, as even the more church-going members of the audience will recognize that Maud is tiptoeing along the line between religious devotion and mental illness. And her balance is slipping.
Like most secular films about the fervor of devout religious faith, Glass’ severe and wickedly crafted debut feature is wary of its protagonist’s conviction; “Saint Maud” isn’t in a hurry to define its terms, but there’s no mistaking that Maud is a horror movie unto herself. She’s like if the alien from “Under the Skin” disguised herself as a nun. It’s not just the streaking red scars across her abdomen or the ever-shredding rumble of cellos that follows her wherever she goes, but also how she walks through Glass’ delicate frames like she’s afraid of shattering them, and how she clenches everything that she can whenever someone tries to speak to her. We don’t know if Maud is trying to welcome God in, or if she’s trying to keep something darker from getting out, but it’s only a matter of time before her body becomes its own battleground.
It’s something that she and Amanda have in common, and “Saint Maud” is never more unnerving than when Glass keys in on the physicality of feeling God. Ben Fordesman’s supple, flickering cinematography shoots each close-up of Maud’s hands as though they were proof of the holy spirit; largely eschewing jump-scares for a more honest and resonant kind of horror, the film suffuses the feelings that bind together body and soul until the mere act of breathing is endowed with suspense.
Suspense and uncertainty. Maud feels God ripple through her bones like a warm shiver, even if it sounds a bit like death when that breath gets caught in her lungs. Amanda soon comes to feel it too, though the energy assumes an orgasmic force as it pulses up her spine and out through her mouth. Perhaps that’s because the former dancer is a bit of a hedonist (at least by Maud’s standards), and still needs to be redeemed from carnal pleasures. Whatever the case, Maud is not a fan of the spunky twentysomething (Lily Frazer) who comes over to keep Amanda company at night, and the tension that mounts between these three women eventually sparks a moment of violence that breaks this movie in half and sends Maud spiraling towards a twisted form of sanctification.
Glass only tightens her firm grip on the material as Maud begins to pull apart at the seams. More traditional horror elements start to crop up with greater frequency, but Glass always deploys them with purpose. If she’s less interested in scaring you than she is in seducing you towards Maud’s truth, those two goals grow to be one and the same as Maud’s conviction begins to chip away at our own.
Is it really possible that God has a greater plan for her? Will Maud be granted a ticket to heaven if she can save Amanda’s soul? This extremely promising debut can become didactic as it circles the drain between truth and delusion, and such either/or stakes have a way of making the movie feel even smaller than its 83-minute runtime might suggest, but Glass refuses to stay on the fence. In her own way, the filmmaker is as much of a hardliner as her heroine, and “Saint Maud” is all the more satisfying for how it refuses to back down from its truth.
“Saint Maud” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.