[LFF Review] 'Saint Maud' Is a Haunting Exploration of Female Rage and Isolation
“Never waste your pain,” utters the titular character in SAINT MAUD, the haunting and mesmerizing directorial debut from British filmmaker Rose Glass. And from the moment we first see her on screen, we can tell she’s experienced a lot of it. Living in a run down one-room apartment (that serves as a bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom all in one) with no immediate friends or family, it is apparent that Maud (Morfydd Clark) has been through the lot.
While her backstory isn’t explicitly explored, with Glass choosing to focus on Maud’s current predicament instead of what led her to it, we do get glimpses of her past through flashbacks and pointed lines of dialogue, most of which are sensitively delivered by former co-worker Joy (an empathetic Lily Knight), the only figure from Maud’s past that we see in the film. In a coy, almost sarcastic voiceover, we also get a sense of her frame of mind – lamenting her current living situation and desperately praying to whatever entity that might be listening for salvation, it is clear that Maud sees herself as a victim of circumstance instead of an active player in her own misfortune; a harrowing medical incident from her past which she is seemingly responsible for draws no regret or remorse from her, but derision and mild annoyance instead.
Almost as if her prayers are answered, Maud seemingly gets a new lease on life when she starts a new job as a caregiver for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer suffering from a terminal illness. Amanda is an enigmatic, wisecracking fighter of a woman who hasn’t let her misfortunes slow her down – she regularly partakes in day-drinking and numerous affairs, with one in particular (with fellow dancer Carol, played by the charismatic Lily Frazer) capturing Maud’s attention for all the wrong reasons, leading to the unraveling of their once-promising friendship. While they start off on the right foot, with Amanda finding the overly earnest Maud amusing and Maud devoting all her efforts into “saving” Amanda (who she sees as a corrupt and misguided soul), tensions gradually start to fray due to Maud’s insistence on controlling every aspect of Amanda’s life, leading to an explosive argument that leaves both sides bruised and battered – in more ways than one.
Morfydd Clark is absolutely mesmerizing in one of her first starring roles, bringing nuance and a divine intensity to a role that could have easily played as a caricature in a lessor actor’s hands. For the first half of the film, Clark portrays Maud with a subtlety that gradually curdles into a stunning and haunting display of desperation, occasionally giving us a glimpse into the cracks beneath the character’s well disguised surface. In a heartbreaking sequence – one of the few where we see the tightly-wounded Maud’s guards let down – Maud desperately tries to connect with a group of 20-somethings sitting at a table next to her, and Clark does a fantastic job at expressing that Maud’s inability to connect isn’t for a lack of trying; it’s just that she doesn’t know how, demonstrating how loneliness and alienation can lead to a path of self-destruction.
Jennifer Ehle – always reliably good in supporting roles – is simply sublime in what could possibly be one of her best performances, portraying Amanda with an air of old Hollywood glamour and a knowing glint in her eyes, like the owner of the world’s best kept secret.
Portraying religion in film is nothing new but only scarcely has it ever been depicted as darkly as it is here, with only Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie coming close. But it must be noted that Glass isn’t targeting religion itself but zealotry and fanaticism, and just how desperation and isolation can lead to both. Maud isn’t genuinely religious – eschewing churchgoing and traditional methods of practicing Christianity in favor of her own ways of expressing her misguided beliefs – she’s merely looking for an anchor to hold on to as she tries to outrun her tragic past and dire future. But in the small English town where she resides, there’s only so far she can run before the truth catches up to her and instead of confronting it, Maud decides to dissociate into a world of her own making with tragic results.
Glass’ direction is top notch, with well-executed jump scares, disorienting camera work and recurring motifs adding to the claustrophobic and nerve-wracking tone of the film, suffocating audiences with well-crafted tension before the film eventually explodes into its fiery finale. The sound design is also particularly impressive; one scene – the most disturbing to feature Converse shoes in cinematic history – had the entire audience visibly and audibly wincing in their seats from sheer noise alone. Where the film falters, though, is the size of its ambition. As Maud goes off the rails so do her delusions and Glass shoots for the stars with a series of fantasy sequences that baffle and confuse instead of shock and terrify. Despite that, Saint Maud is a gripping, astonishing and unforgettable exploration of female rage and isolation that cements Rose Glass’ status as a promising new genre filmmaker and one to certainly watch.
Saint Maud screened at the 2019 London Film Festival and has been acquired by A24 for a 2020 release.