TW: Sexual Assault, Mental Illness, Body Horror // Minor Spoilers Below
Rose Glass’ directorial debut, Saint Maud, explores the term “god complex” to an extreme. The film follows Maud, a young nurse who has recently been “saved” by God (through Catholicism) and believes she has a bigger purpose for it. She tries to implement her “good-willed” faith on her new patient — a harsh and pessimistic former dance teacher, Amanda, who is dying of cancer. The film, while not always perfect with its semi-predictable ending and lack of true scares, is a strong freshman film and solidifies Glass as a rising star to watch. Her command of screen, story, and character is a marvel to behold — making me excited for what comes next. A fellow A24 film it heavily parallels is The Witch — (one of) the company's best horror films and even gives it a hidden similarity between the two worlds. Possibly even hinting at an A24 cinematic universe — who wouldn't love a series of interconnected movies about animal deities conspiring with young women? Though not shining as bright as the latter, which is in part due to misrepresented expectations of the film, Saint Maud is the perfect follow-up to watch if you enjoy unhinged women unraveling in supernatural ways.
The most fascinating part of the film is the fantastic performances. Both Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud, and Jennifer Ehle, who plays Amanda, make these roles spectacularly horrifying, giving the film its psychologically disturbing edge. Clark is great at giving Maud this well-rounded complexity that still remains cohesive to the character. There is a steady progression into Carrie White-like hysteria that is absolutely mesmerizing. She is able to teeter the line between devout and innocent so well, without Maud falling too unsympathetic in her god-like narcissism. It makes her character feel even more real, wanting so strongly to be pure and faithful that she wills herself into believing she can perform miracles. Ehle matches suit and brings the dynamic to the next level with her hot-and-cold manner, mixed with a subtle sarcasm that is easily doubted as a genuine interest in Maud — where the audience becomes just as confused as Maud if Amanda really likes her or not. Its ambiguity works well here, not concealing but emphasizing the confusing perspective that Maud is trying to work through. The other actor’s in the film complement this too, though not to the same degree. Everyone seems a lot more “normal” and uninspired, which is how Maud views them. They are not grandiose or multi-dimensional like Maud and Amanda. Instead, everyone else is simply neutral pawns in the game of good versus evil that is occurring — at least in Maud’s head.
Aesthetically, the film is entrancing and captivating. Its cinematography is breathtakingly purposeful, where every object in the shot counts for something and nothing feels out of place. From the beginning, the film uses close-ups and plays with perspective to constantly have the audience questioning if things are as simple or devious as they seem (e.g. the tomato soup boiling looked like bubbling blood).
Every image has this startling darkness in it too — even when things are in the light whether accomplished through wardrobe or lighting. Following along with its psychological thriller intention, it shows the brimming darkness within the light that “God” (or Maud) has cast (upon herself). Often times things are always focused directly on Maud in a gaudy way, demonstrating her actual self-centered mindset or on Amanda — whom she thinks is a possible disciple. The set design supports this with the contrast between the flashy, grittiness of the seaside-town they live in, Maud’s cramped and cluttered apartment to the extravagant, low-lit maze of Amanda’s mansion. These intensely claustrophobic settings with the dark lighting and unsettling close-ups make audiences grit their teeth without quite knowing why.
I wanted it to appeal to people who believe in God and people who don’t, and that even if you don’t have faith, you can relate to the idea of finding happiness and, by extension, ecstasy in connecting with something bigger than yourself. - Rose Glass, director-writer
My biggest qualm with the film is the structure. It moves slowly and the film seems split right down the middle with before and after her time with Amanda — diverting from a clean and satisfying three-act structure that would’ve fared better here. Maybe, Amanda was the inciting incident in her life that changed everything for Maud and gave her inspiration for what her true “purpose” is. However, Maud getting a semi-direct encounter with God after her dismissal from Amanda feels unearned and random. There isn’t enough time allocated to her growing psychosis beforehand, only a brief and lacking montage explaining this. I enjoy the slow burn of the film, though, and think the glacial pacing is an overall good choice for it. Though, with its small runtime of 84 minutes, it would do well with at least a near two-hour charting of her painful descent toward madness. It would make her brief reversal back to her “unenlightened” ways seem more earned and shocking — especially since we finally see Maud interacting with those her age and her failure to do so well. It does raise questions, though, since this used to be Maud’s lifestyle, on how and why did she do “this” if she didn’t understand, enjoy, or was successful at it. Also, this sequence utilized an unnecessary sex/(turning into) rape scene — an often hallmark of current horror films that exploit sexual assault as a tactless plot device.
Part of the structural issue, though, isn’t the film's fault. It was portrayed to have a much different tone and gave audiences unauthentic expectations during its brief stint of advertising. A24 cut the trailer to make it seem like a terrifying, religious-focused horror film. It came off as Hereditary-esque in intensity, from the possessed writhing on the floor and the post-horror thuds of the music that jar you more than the images. However, this film is a psychologically disturbing character study rather than the straight “horror” film shown in the teaser. There is nothing wrong with the format change and it was a pleasant surprise, especially since I felt very immersed in Maud’s struggle.
The film also was continually pushed in terms of release dates, despite it premiering at TIFF in September of 2019 and getting electric reviews during its initial releases amongst the festival circuit. A whole year was wasted after being picked up for distribution by the indie studio, instead of utilizing resources to broadcast it in a more accurate and widespread way. A year and a half after its premiere, A24 finally put it on Epix — a seldom-used streaming platform that is mostly included as a premium channel on bigger streaming services like Prime. Essentially, instead of finding it a proper audience and not distorting the trailer to fit current post-horror trends, A24 decided to slip Saint Maud out under the radar. The same can be said with Minari’s small release too, though done slightly better by eventually utilizing a wider theatrical release and putting it on Apple TV. Thus, the pandemic seems like a continually poor excuse for putting off the distribution of a fascinatingly startling film that is inherently female in both its journey, literalism in terms of cast, and is the work of an emerging female artist. Though A24 advertises “caring” about showcasing minority voices, it would be nice if they put this into practice by better marketing and orchestrating releases for films involving marginalized communities.
Saint Maud, though imperfect and flawed, is an amazing and impressive feat for a directorial debut. Its captivating acting, strange story, and stunning cinematography doesn’t leave viewers bored but takes a new and startling perspective on the empowerments of religion. Hopefully, A24 will learn how to better market its movies — especially something as precious and delicate as a debut film. I’m excited to see how rosy Ms. Glass’ future is and will be waiting patiently for the next scary-tale to come. If you’re looking for an unraveling woman feeling empowered through mysticism, then you came to the right place.