It starts with a tragedy, a damaged body on a medical bed seen from floor-level, arm trailing off the edge, blood on the floor, harsh fluorescent lighting casting shadows. Sickly green palette, loud intense bassy squealing music. Then cut to a nurse, the only person in the room, crumpled on the floor in the corner. Hands bloodied, face anguished, silent despair. Then in huge letters white on black ‘Saint Maud’.
Saint Maud is an exemplary debut feature film written and directed by Rose Glass, starring Morfydd Clark (the elder sister in Crawl, Dora Spenlow in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Jennifer Ehle (Vox Lux, Zero Dark Thirty, The Looming Tower). It was chosen for the main competition at the 2019 London Film Festival and is a terrifying calling card. A psychological horror about a damaged woman compelled by delusional religious faith, it’s unpredictable and relentlessly creepy.
Maud (Clark) is a private nurse having left hospital work following the opening tragedy. She lives in a bleak, grey, British coastal town (filmed in Scarborough) and her first assignment is to care for Amanda, a 49-year-old retired dancer with terminal cancer. Amanda lives in a large, dark gothic mansion on the hill overlooking town and Maud is to be her full-time live-in carer. Amanda is bohemian, sexual and cutting. Maud is pious and insistent, and takes it on herself to look after Amanda’s spiritual as well as physical needs. The resulting battle of wills becomes increasingly intense and horrific.
Glass’s excellent script derives its tension from Maud’s own anxieties and self-doubts. Amanda mocks and exploits this (“cancer is so boring”), starting subtly with the gift of a book on religious paintings of William Blake, and then ramping up the quiet cruelty as in this clip. Sexually, Maud is abstemious albeit with a promiscuous past and is now particularly censorious and disapproving of Amanda’s bohemian sexuality, which Amanda flaunts all the more. We pivot between who we think is manipulating and controlling whom.
The two leads are excellent, particularly Morfydd Clark as Maud, capturing her delusions, insecurities and strangeness. Jennifer Ehle plays Amanda with a regal bitterness so you’re never quite sure if she’s being mocking, needy or kind, a woman who is probably as lonely in her own way as Maud despite being surrounded by superficial acquaintances. Together they make a compelling double-act.
The film explores the tense contrasts between the two women, and also between Maud’s current persona and her previous life. Cinematically, these contrasts are expressed by an effective mix of gothic horror and realism, the literally heighened, cocooned existence in the grand house on the hill and life in the drab, debauched seaside town.
Amanda’s imposing house, deep reds and blacks, could be straight from any number of haunted house movies and the camera makes it a character all by itself. Its interiors were actually filmed in two old houses in Highgate, London, which came complete with stained glass windows and darkened staircases. By contrast, cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s depiction of the tired cafes, depressed boozers and Maud’s own bedsit – cramped, sparse, unappealing – gives the town a strong sense of realism, of decay and hopelessness. It’s all drab grey, sickly greens, browns and yellows with flat ugly lighting
Although this is a horror film, there is no monster, demon or ghost; instead the unsettling source of terror is Maud’s own delusions. Triggered by guilt after a patient’s death, Maud has abandoned her previous life entirely in favour of a solitary, almost monastic existence, conversing intimately with her God. She believes she can hear him talk, feel him surround and be inside her. It’s an extreme form of piety involving gruesome self-flagellation and asceticism. Because the film follows Maud as the protagonist, Glass allows us to be privy to some of her inner thoughts and private behaviour, yet we don’t know what she will do next or how far she will go.
Glass said she defined her visual and tonal references to the production team by citing movies, mentioning Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Polanski’s Repulsion. The film also has elements reminiscent of The Exorcist although Glass said that film wasn’t a direct influence -the steep, imposing hillside steps to Amanda’s house and some of the bedroom scenes including the intense, horrific finale. It also reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona with the nurse and patient relationship, but even more so of Through A Glass Darkly, which is also a story about a young woman infused by a madness that expresses itself as religious delusion. In that film, protagonist Karin famously encounters her God in the form of a spider, and there’s a similar scene in Saint Maud where God seems to take the form of a beetle. Just as Karin’s encounter is all in her head, so is Maud’s: in a startling scene her God speaks in Maud’s native Welsh and the voice is the digitally processed voice of actress Morfydd Clark, lowered by several octaves.
This is a claustrophobic, intense film. We, like Maud, are confined by her solitude, her religion, her living conditions and her detachment. This is emphasised by the impressive cinematography; the compositions use negative space and shadows to enclose the actors. The soundtrack contributes significantly to sustain a sense of dread and tension. Very forward in the mix, the blend of scraping string soundscapes and throbbing low-pitched synths is discordant, intense and disturbing. At times almost overbearing, the score traps us in this world.
Saint Maud doesn’t set a foot wrong. Unsettling from the start, its tension slowly builds to a pair of distressing finales, perhaps made more awful by their inevitability. The film metes out its shocks sparingly but with maximum impact, inflicting attritional damage on Rose and on the audience’s nerve endings. By the conclusion some of the audience were screaming and hiding their eyes, not so much due to visceral horror (although there is some icky body horror in the film), but because Glass had ratchetted up the tension so successfully.
This is a very effective, fascinating and unsettling film that leaves a lasting impression. It’s meticulously constructed and doesn’t waste a single minute of its brief 84-minute runtime. That it’s director Rose Glass’s debut feature makes it all the more impressive, and that’s recognised by being included in the main competition section of the London Film Festival – how many debut films can boast that?
Saint Maud is a careful blend of arthouse and genre horror that should satisfy fans of either It will be distributed in the UK by StudioCanal, and in the US by A24. Rose Glass’s short films can be seen here:Follow @davefilmblog