Thorns and nails pressing into raw flesh, limbs twisting and contorting beyond the limits of nature, flames not-so-gently lapping at bare skin — religious fervor (especially that of the Catholic variety) has always made an alluring backdrop for body horror, and for good reason. As films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Devils, and First Reformed have shown at various points in film history, the line between madness and extreme piousness can be a thin one, and it’s at this intersection that Irish writer-director Rose Glass has staged her feverish feature-length debut, Saint Maud.
Tense, gloomy, and full of gothic atmosphere, the film takes its name from St. Maud, a 10th-century German queen who was renowned for her acts of charity — in fact, after her husband died, she supposedly renounced her worldly possessions and “squandered” her noble family’s fortune by aiding the poor. The film isn’t about the actual saint, though: It’s about a young nurse (Morfydd Clark) who decides to symbolically change her name from Kate to Maud after a religious awakening that occurs after she’s forced to quit her job at a local hospital. The details of the events that led to Maud’s resignation (or perhaps termination) are only hinted at via gruesome flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, but the gist is this: A patient died a horribly painful death under her care, and she ends up being forced to seek jobs as a personal care nurse in private homes. She sees signs of God’s presence everywhere.
It doesn’t take long for the viewer to notice that this particular Maud isn’t exactly a saint, despite her extreme fanaticism and obsession with religious iconography. After spending a bit of time with her in her squalid flat and watching her run into an old colleague from her former hospital, we get a glimpse into the tortured, troubled mental state that has led her to give up her formerly wild ways. She’s essentially traded in one set of extreme behaviors (booze, drugs, and casual sex) for another, attempting to reinvent herself and channel her alienation into a more socially acceptable form. She performs acts of care for the hospice patient she tends to — Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a cynical and elegant middle-aged woman who had been a big name in the art and modern dance worlds before being stricken with cancer — but she does so with judgment and disdain.
Maud’s obsession with saving Amanda’s soul also seems to be linked to her growing jealousy of Amanda’s reckless lover, Carol (Lily Frazer), who comes to the sprawling estate frequently to help Amanda drink her troubles away. Amanda softens toward Maude, mostly out of loneliness and a growing sense of concern for Maud’s sanity; this deepening but eternally uneasy bond between the pair is a particular strong point in Glass’s script, which occasionally mixes in moments of deadpan humor to keep things bearable. Maud has found meaning in her work with Amanda, so when their bond inevitably breaks down, she has another total breakdown, spiraling at first into acts of self harm and self flagellation before seeking solace in her old vices.
Some viewers may be frustrated by the fact that Glass’s script may seem to leave the events of its shocking conclusion open to interpretation. (Is Maud actually crazy? Has God actually been guiding her all along?) But it all comes down to one staggering final shot, lensed by cinematographer Ben Fordesman (previously known for his work on TV shows like The End of the F***ing World) in a style Carl Theodor Dreyer himself would have loved — it’s here that Glass clearly establishes herself as a director who can deliver; she’s certainly one to watch in the future.
(Screened at Fantastic Fest; release TBA)