editor’s note: the below was originally written last year, as the film had been set for US release at that time. It is coming out, instead, this Friday and we are publishing the review to coincide with this new release date
The new film from writer-director Rose Glass, “Saint Maud,” might be a horror film, but it is also—and perhaps more interestingly—a mystery. The central question that the audience is tasked with answering is whether the Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a hero or a villain. Is she truly following the way of the Lord; is it something darker and more nefarious which guides her; or is she simply unwell, is she imagining that she is part of some sort of larger struggle. Certainly there are other possibilities, but these are the main ones and more than enough to keep the viewer invested over the film’s 84 minute running time.
Clark is mesmerizing as Maud, a private nurse whom we meet as she is preparing to begin a job caring for a terminal cancer patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud talks to God about her hopes and desires and uncertainties and we come to understand that Maud believes that God speaks to her as well, if not in words, making his presence known in other ways. Crucially, we also know that Maud has skeletons in her closet, her faith is relatively new, and she may have been brought to it by whatever (unknown to the audience) darkness came before.
As the relationship between Amanda and Maud unfolds, we see that it is at best an uneasy one. Amanda mocks Maud and her devotion. She finds it amusing.
Just as with there being questions surrounding Maud’s truth, there are ones surrounding Amanda as well. This is, of course, a woman in a great deal of pain, one who has lost her life as a dancer and is about to lose the rest of it as well. Is it that which makes her awful to our (anti-)hero, or is this simply who Amanda has always been?
The answers to the questions surrounding Amanda are really only important as they allow us to further our understanding of Maud. Just as with Maud, there is no clear, correct, solution. And, just as with Clark, Ehle keeps us intrigued.
Yes, Glass is a marvel at keeping the viewer wondering and uses every second of the short movie to her advantage. Every time we think we know what is happening, we think we see the truth, we are shown that there is—there always has been—another veil before our eyes.
Even better, while we may believe that the final veil has been removed before the movie ends, there are definitely lingering questions and open interpretations. Not only that, but Glass manages to close the movie not providing any definitive answers and yet not leaving the audience with the sense that we’ve been cheated. She has, it is clear, told the full story, or at least, as much of it as we need to see.
As absolutely fascinating as it may be, “Saint Maud” is by no means an easy movie to watch. Maud tortures herself to bring herself closer to god and it is a difficult thing to watch. There is some blood, but the pain we feel tends to result more from the camera lingering on Maud’s face and the sound design attached to the proceedings. Because of this, we also find ourselves on the receiving end of the tremendous pain Maud must be experiencing, but we do not get the same revelatory sensations that go with the pain for her.
It would be exceptionally easy to write off this film as foolishly anti-religion and there are interpretations of the film that would have it be just that. I am not so sure they are right. I am not sure whether Maud is the villain or the victim or both and I am not sure that anything about her thoughts and actions are definitively applicable to a larger worldview.
What I do know is this – every moment of “Saint Maud” is gripping, and usually in painful fashion. There are big questions that it asks and then deftly sidesteps answering, and it would be so easy to dismiss it all if those sidesteps weren’t as clever as they are. These maneuvers are built into the entire affair and we will never know exactly what is objectively true and what is only true from Maud’s point of view. This may be Rose Glass’s first feature length work as a writer-director (at least it is according to IMDb), but it would be terribly disappointing if it were her last.
photo credit: A24 Films