For her feature film debut, writer/director Rose Glass comes out swinging with Saint Maud. The stage is set for a tense tête-à-tête between the film’s two lead actresses, each bringing their A-game to the battlefield. This psychological horror has an intense slow burn that explodes with one of the best final shots I’ve seen on film.
Saint Maud follows a troubled young nurse who takes a position as the at-home care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty), a former dancer and choreographer. Maud (Morfydd Clark, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is devout in her religious beliefs and believes that — with Amanda’s cooperation — she can save her soul. A toxic obsession develops and threatens to consume them both.
Maud is coming fresh off the heels of a traumatic experience at her last job posting, leaving her ostracized and disgraced. To move past her tarnished name, Maud has reinvented herself, and when she meets Amanda, she sees a second chance.
Amanda is fascinated by Maud and begins a delicate dance of friendship. When Maud upsets their collaborative balance, Amanda is quick to knock her back into place. Thus, Maud’s world shifts and their fates are forever entwined.
The two leads are captivating as they weave through complex emotions and subtext. Clark delivers a compelling performance, leading the audience on an intensifying journey. Ehle oozes confidence and sexuality; even in her declining state, she’s the cat that caught the canary.
Maud’s relationship with sexuality is left open and exposed. It’s a cold, raw look at desire and lust in women, and the socially imposed feelings of shame that come when we indulge in those fantasies. She views her needs as indiscretions that must be punished; her piety is held above all else.
Scenes of a sexual nature are shot in a way that feels very intrusive, emphasizing Maud’s feelings of shame with isolated sound and an unflinching focus. Each moment is dripping with that awkward feeling that comes from a regrettable one-night stand. It’s extremely effective.
This effect is heightened by the harsh realism with which these scenes are shot, contrasted with other scenes that hold an almost dreamlike quality. It creates an imbalance that reflects Maud’s mental state, highlighting her isolation.
The use of sound and lighting is exquisite. The lack of sound echoes through tense moments, while visceral sound effects are used as punctuation for intensity. Some scenes are basked in shadow and others flooded with light, perfectly reflecting Maud’s perception of events. It draws you into the action and emotion of the film, creating a naturalistic experience right to the shocking conclusion.
Saint Maud is a study of fanaticism told from the perspective of someone who is deeply lost in their own madness. The audience is left to question what is real right up to the final, explosive moments of the film.
Glass has crafted a tight and powerful film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Each moment we spend with Maud is an unravelling of her character — a discovery of her deepest, darkest nature. Saint Maud is a slow burn in the best possible way, raising the tension and stirring a sense of unease until it boils over. It’s an enthralling and fascinating film, and it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.