It is not every day that a new film arrives with as many hopes hanging over it as there were over Rose Glass’ Saint Maud. If the introduction of a new voice in the UK landscape is already an event in itself, it is even more special when that filmmaker is a woman, or working in horror. Yet there is not a hint of anxiety in Glass’ self-assured and wildly entertaining debut, to the point where, when so many feature debuts ground themselves in seriousness, this one has the humility to be funny.
The Maud of the title is the young lived-in nurse (Morfydd Clark) who has come to take care of retired dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), suffering from cancer. Amanda is an artist through and through: from the tasteful and warm decoration of her mansion, to her love for throwing parties with all her fancy friends, she loves doing things her way and naturally does not suffer rules very well. She is the very opposite of Maud, whose every move is dictated by her love for God.
As they inevitably come into conflict, the film threatens to develop this dichotomy alongside the familiar and predictable catfight route, where the supposedly subversive idea of women physically hurting each other often fails to escape misogynistic undertones. But Saint Maud is nothing if not utterly unpredictable, and Glass, who also wrote the film, chooses to instead focus on Maud, who soon reveals herself to be much more interesting than she initially appeared. In one of the film’s first of many delightfully eyebrow-raising scenes, Maud feels God’s ‘presence’. The usually tidy and reserved young woman collapses on the ground, suddenly seized by what appears to be an intense wave of physical pleasure.
As the film sticks to Maud’s side through thick and thin, the true heights of her devotion (or delusion) are progressively revealed. Amanda, whose relative normalcy was a reassuring source of humour (her reactions to Maud’s religious rituals are priceless) and a welcome anchor to reality, gradually recedes to the background, until we are left completely alone with Maud. After easing us in with chuckles at her protagonist’s extreme ways, Glass throws us into the dark reality of being this desperate, alone and lost young woman, until the dark humour becomes just delightfully, utterly dark.
The fact that the beautifully written film does not suffer from the low-budget look that often comes with feature debuts feels like a real blessing. Carried by a stellar performance from Morfydd Clark in the lead role, Saint Maud is a seamless experience of pure horror pleasure. Amen.
Saint Maud was seen and reviewed at Toronto International Film Festival 2019.