And Then There’s Maud

In Saint Maud (2019), the first feature from writer-director Rose Glass, a troubled young hospice nurse becomes obsessed with saving her dying patient’s eternal soul. It’s a hefty premise that might feed into an Oscar contender, the kind with its stars looking skyward past each other on a sepia-golden poster, or even a bittersweet dark comedy–Saint Maud itself pockets a few mordant giggles from time to time–but as cagey as Glass is about Maud herself, she’s never ambiguous about what kind of film this is.* She makes that plain from its first minute: all blue-filtered darkness and the sound of something dripping as a young woman (Morfydd Clark)  in medical scrubs and gloves, blood inexplicably smeared across her mouth and cheeks, slumps in a corner across from a hospital bed. Glass conceals all details about the shape in the bed in the distance of a silhouette, except that most essential detail. The bed is full while it is also empty. 

Death in the room is the least disturbing thing about the moment though. The young nurse’s attitude, empty eyes cast to the ceiling, arms balanced on her knees with the underside of her wrists offered in an almost cruciform position, belongs to either a suicide or a saint. The body in the bed is over; we don’t even need to look at it. But something is gathering in the blood-smeared nurse. Then her dead gaze catches on a cockroach scuttling across the ceiling, and numb shock abruptly melts from her features, tickled into a strange, incipient smile. What does she see in something that, on its own, might be disgusting or still more evidence of how helpless human effort is against the natural world? Death always finds its way in, just like cockroaches. Why does hope break on her like a shaft of light?

It’s an effective mood setter for what’s to come, but it’s also a little bit of a plot summary, because Maud, as we come to know the woman, will never transcend that moment of creepy post-traumatic revelation. No one should expect her to. The dusky lighting and the nerve-splitting score are very clear on this point. Some horror is a ride, with survival for the few or the one or maybe even just the audience at the other end, and some horror is a test, be it of endurance, of personal convictions, of faith. Quite a lot of horror with religious themes, from The Devils (1971)** to The Exorcist (1973) to The Conjuring series, are actually more like rides, with the personal affirmation of the existence of God either upheld or convicted in absentia at the end. And then there’s Maud. Saint Maud will be a true test, although not of faith, Maud’s or anyone’s. Maud’s religious conversion is almost a red herring. She’s no Father Karras, afraid to hope for the God he wants so badly to believe in as he confronts a possessed child in a soiled bed. Maud has much more in common with Regan in that movie, but if she’s possessed, it’s not by the devil. It’s by trauma.

The story picks up a year later, with Maud taking over care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a famous choreographer and dancer in her late 40s, retired to a seaside village as she slowly dies from stage 4 lymphoma of the spine. Maud is mousy, tidy, precise, clinical even in her prayers, which are not a little sassy with the One True God as she impatiently waits for a grand, meaningful mission from Him for her life. Meanwhile, Amanda is a glorious, inveterate sinner, dying as she lived, with cigarettes and booze and late nights with a cute girl who may be lowkey prostituting herself. Can they get along? 

Actually they do, at least in the beginning. Maud is a careful and diffident nurse, and Amanda seems to appreciate her attention, showing nothing of the tendency to be “a bit of a cunt” Maud’s predecessor warned her about. She may not thirst for a deathbed conversion, but she quizzes Maud about her faith with amused fascination, particularly when she realizes Maud’s conversion took place within the previous year. She won’t ever pry under the armor of Maud’s faith and neither will we–it’s the one thing about the film I can’t entirely make peace with–but it’s clear she cares about who Maud is and what happens to her beyond Amanda’s own sunset. What must Maud look like to Amanda, with the dancer’s own body turning against her at such a young age, while her pretty nurse spends her youth on ecstatic zealotry? Gamely, she consents to be ministered to and prayed over by Maud, referring to Maud fondly as her “savior,” but with the teasing wink of a confirmed unbeliever. She even gifts Maud a book of William Blake’s work, and Maud devours it, reading between the lines of Amanda’s fond inscription the clear Word of God. Here, at last, is Maud’s divine purpose. She may have only been a Catholic for a year, but you can easily believe she has been waiting all her life for it.

Trouble comes with Amanda’s girlfriend Carol (Lily Frazer), a much younger woman who visits Amanda with late nights of champagne behind closed doors. Maud quietly disapproves of this, but she’s really activated once Carol betrays indifference to Amanda in private. Maud bristles at this, even as she spies on them through a crack in Amanda’s bedroom door. You might wonder if she’s more annoyed that Carol doesn’t really care for Amanda or that all of her progress with Amanda’s spiritual growth gets flung on the floor with Carol’s clothes. She’s definitely jealous, and like many a jealous lover, she confronts Carol, telling her to stop leading Amanda on, that she’s a waste of Amanda’s all-too-precious time. And here things get a little complicated because there is a definite sensuality to Maud and Amanda’s relationship, grounded as it is in the physical reality of Amanda’s most basic needs, from feeding to bathing to doing daily physical therapy to mopping up her vomit, and there’s no other word for Maud’s experience of the divine but orgasmic, an experience she tries to share with Amanda. But I think it would be superficial to read their relationship as a sublimated romance, along the lines of Miss Fontaine and Lara in Carmilla. It is, however, an open question repeatedly brought up within the film itself. Is Maud a homophobic bigot or does she want Amanda? Carol and Amanda both will wonder at different points, and Maud assures them her interest is only pastoral. I think maybe they’re all right, except on the bigot question. There’s no indication Maud is homophobic at all, though she seems straight enough. But she does clearly crave something from her companionship with Amanda that isn’t purely altruistic.

Maud’s confrontation with Carol will have repercussions, of course, and it comes hard on the heels of an unexpected run-in with another nurse, Joy, from Maud’s previous work. For the first time, thirty minutes into the film, we learn Maud’s real name: Katie. From their conversation, we can infer a couple things. One, her former colleague is surprised, even alarmed, that Maud is still nursing. “And they know what happened?” she asks, incredulous, before Maud shuts her down. Joy doesn’t seem to entirely believe Maud. But she also pities her, offering her her number in case she needs someone to talk to. The meeting with Joy visibly unnerves Maud, and worse, at Amanda’s birthday party, she will reap the betrayal she sowed as Carol arrives at Amanda’s side. Perhaps finally showing the teeth her previous nurse felt, Amanda publicly humiliates Maud for going behind her back with Carol and cruelly mocks her faith. Maud snaps and slaps Amanda, getting herself thrown out of the party and Amanda’s employment. Divine mission fail.

This begins a long slog through the wilderness for Maud, where we see her complain irritably to God about his lack of faith to her while languishing in ritual acts of mortification. Scab picking enthusiasts, this is your film. Eventually she relapses into dissolution, including brief encounters at local bars. The last of these triggers a flashback of the failed attempt at CPR that crushed her patient’s chest in the beginning of the film. As Maud recoils from the shock of the memory, her partner continues over her pleas, raping her. It all culminates in Maud, broken down, spying Amanda out and about and happy with her new carer, reigniting the spark of divine purpose that had briefly given her such peace before. I won’t spoil the ending, but you know what kind of film it is.

While I tensed through Saint Maud, impressions of other films visited me. The fatal certainty of Maud’s trajectory–not to mention its deliberately off-key humor–reminded me of Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), where Lowe’s character systematically murders everyone she believes responsible for the death of her husband, egged on by their unborn baby. It reminded me, too, of Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020), with its heroine’s hero worship of the great novelist warping into sexualized, unreliable narration and an ambiguous ending similarly distorted by her point of view. But most of all, it reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), which also centered a neurotic young woman sublimating all her psychosexual energy into disciplined mortification, wound her up good and tight, and then let her lash out full-speed into the ending like a truck without brakes. I should note here, too, that I’ve been on a little bit of a religious horror kick lately, and while Saint Maud is destined to be on lists with The Exorcist, The Rite, The Nun, The Possession, etc. forever, it just doesn’t belong there. The only demons and lost souls here are metaphorical, and Maud’s faith may be the gun in her hand, but it’s not the reason she pulls the trigger. This film is about a lost young woman, probably suffering from a form of PTSD on top of a hidden lifetime that, whatever else it contained, brought her to this point: friendless, loveless, helpless. The closest thing she has to friendship is pity: pity from Joy, even pity from Amanda. That the one human connection Maud believes herself capable of making is through the auspices of a divine calling is simply a pretext. The real horror here is that Maud is more alone in the world than in her head.

I really admire this film. Glass is a meticulous filmmaker, seeding the story with arresting visuals and subtle details, like Maud’s heterochromia, without drawing unbalancing attention to them. Not since the use of runes and flowers in Midsommar have I seen a filmmaker devote such thoughtful attention to aspects of a film most audiences will never notice. Likewise having Maud’s chosen saint be Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of converts and people persecuted for their piety, as well as witness to the Resurrection. I also find the level of tension unbearable, in a good way, even as the film’s candor and gallows humor makes it more surprising and accessible. Whosoever among you cannot relate to the bored back of the bar hand job, cast the first stone. The only thing that bothers me about it, to be honest, is that with Katie’s previous life scrupulously walled off in the narrative, audiences may too easily make the mistake Maud has made, certain there’s a devil in all these details. There’s clearly something much deeper going on with Katie; we only get to see the last of it, and the faithful depiction of mental illness in horror is always tricky. That said, with Glass’ tight control on the level of violence as well as Katie’s personal history, Maud’s isolation is the most consistently horrifying thing about the story. It’s no wonder that Amanda, clear-eyed and apologetic on her deathbed, says to a beatific Maud, “You must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen.”

Saint Maud is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

*Of course, the A24 logo was probably a clue, too. This is TOTALLY an A24 horror movie. Maud will not be joining Dani Ardor and Thomasin from The VVitch in the Good For Her meme though, that I promise you.

**I realize that The Devils is not usually classified as a horror movie, but you come up with something more horrifying. I’ll wait.

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