Dir. Rose Glass; Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
[3 out of 4 stars]
One of the movie trends of recent years that I hold in the most tender regard is the consistency with which new directors debut memorable and adept horror features. Saint Maud (2021), the premiere feature-length film from writer-director Rose Glass, is another gripping entry to that ever-growing list. Focusing on Maud (Morfydd Clark), a newly devout hospice nurse assigned to care for dying former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), Glass modulates the subgenre of religious-themed horror to depict Maud’s obsession with, as she sees it, “saving” Amanda’s soul. Most often in these films, it is the religious figure who must enter into the horrific atmosphere as a hero meant to save the day, something best exemplified by The Exorcist (1973), or more recently in The Conjuring (2013). Glass lifts this expectation and contorts it until Maud emerges as a sympathetic but undeniably spine-tingling figure whose obsession with Amanda provides a new avenue into cinematic meditation on obsession, extremism, and unreliable narration.
The single issue I have with Saint Maud is its pacing. The film is only an hour and twenty-four minutes long, so it feels odd to say that any of it dragged, but I cannot deny that there were moments in the middle where I felt my focus loosening. Glass’s script is quite tight in the opening and closing stretches, which is what makes the middle more noticeable slow. The first act economically introduces us to Maud through a series of flashbacks, the rare example of voiceover narration that actually works, and ushers her quickly into Amanda’s home. Through glimpses of a traumatic attempt to save a patient’s life at her previous job, and looks into her monastic apartment where we are privy to the internal narration of her prayers, we rapidly understand that Maud is an austere and ferociously devout person who walks around with significant trauma. Similarly, we grasp that Amanda is young to be dying, probably in her early 40s, and that as a renowned dancer, or “minor celebrity” as Maud calls her, becoming consigned to a wheelchair is devastating. As a result, she is angry, drinks a lot, and rages against her situation. These introductions are masterfully done and avoid the telltale exposition dumps that often hamper early stretches. And so when we settle into Amanda’s care and the dynamic that develops between the two women, I could have used fewer scenes. Glass adeptly reveals Maud’s increasing extremism, but we only need so many scenes to get that point across.
What saves the second act from taking the plunge into the dreaded state of “boring,” and in turn what solidifies Saint Maud as a stirring debut comes down to two pairs of artists. The first is Glass and the way she works with her cinematographer Ben Fordesman. Together, they establish a visual tone that deepens the growing unease we feel seeing Maud and Amanda interact, and that comes to ominously reflect Maud’s mental landscape. The majority of the film takes place in Amanda’s mansion, and in tandem Glass and Fordesman portray the space as cavernous and dark. Amanda has lovely taste, and so the many rooms are populated by gorgeous furniture, art, and other statement pieces, but the cinematography cranks down the light and color of each scene to pull the life out of the space. Resultantly, the home seems to just barely cling to life, a reflection of its fading owner. Glass’s approach to framing these spaces and how Maud and Amanda exist within them only heightens the feeling. Amanda is usually in her wheelchair or sitting while Maud tends to her or bustles about, making expertly clear that Maud retains the power in every situation. The dynamic between hospice nurse and patient is not one that we often reflect on as being toxic, preferring to imagine that healthcare workers have the best interests of their patients in mind. While that is (hopefully) the case in most scenarios, Glass posits what can happen when a nurse like Maud has more extreme thoughts on her mind, and the shot selection establishes the power Maud has while close-ups and the unsettling light and color display how the story turns the corner towards Maud’s disastrous endgame.
The second successful artistic pairing is Clark and Ehle as Maud and Amanda. It is decidedly Clark’s showcase, but for her to achieve what she does, it requires a supporting performance that never wilts and Ehle is brilliant in her role. She radiates resentment from every pore. The way she drinks, speaks, and moves relay a woman who refuses to give in to her rapidly approaching death, but in turn, has no intention of existing peacefully until it inevitably comes. This of course informs the dynamic that she and Clark can develop as their characters grow more entangled. Clark plays Maud as incredibly self-contained, a woman of few words but precise actions. Voiceover is deftly employed here, allowing Clark to read her prayers and thoughts in a matter-of-fact tone that grows increasingly unsettling as the words she relays reveal a plan to “save” Amanda “at any cost.” But of course, Amanda does not hear these thoughts, and so what emerges between the two is a somewhat tenuous peace. Amanda refers to Maud as her “savior” in tones equally tongue-in-cheek and heartfelt, characteristic of a woman who needs help but never wants to admit it. Maud of course takes this further to heart than Amanda could imagine, and by playing Maud as quiet and awkward as she does, Clark lulls both Amanda and us into thinking that maybe it’s just a big heart that’s urging her to do what she does. Therefore, when she turns full-tilt extremist at the start of the third act, it is breathtakingly unnerving because we feel for her, even as we are quite aware that she is unhinged. Maud is a fascinating figure, and Clark makes sure she emerges as an unforgettable anti-heroine of horror.
I feel compelled to at least mention that Saint Maud also marks another home run for studio and distributor A24, which has established a consistent ability to showcase emerging artists who might otherwise struggle to break out in the Hollywood studio system. It is A24 that helped give us Robert Eggers’ The VVitch: A New England Folk Tale (2015) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), both modern horror classics that propelled their writer-directors into the circle of beloved indie directors. Glass and Saint Maud have all the markers of following in that path, and I hope that having to contend with a pandemic-era release will not hamper either the creator’s or the project’s chance to shine. Saint Maud is undoubtedly the first great horror movie of the year, and it has set a high bar for any feature coming in the rest of the year.