Judging by Hereditary, The Witch, and Midsommar, somebody at the film distribution company A24 digs horror movies plumbing the perils of religious belief. In a non-pandemic year, their latest contribution to this subgenre would’ve generated comparable buzz. Instead, Saint Maud is in danger of languishing unnoticed on an obscure streaming service.
If you were fascinated by the aforementioned films, do yourself a kindness and track this one down. (I watched it through a free trial subscription to Epix on Amazon Prime.) Although Saint Maud doesn’t quite scale the heights of Ari Aster’s or Robert Eggers’ works, mostly due to its generically oppressive musical score, it’s still one hell of a film.
Impressively for a feature directing debut, it manages to reference a memorable Ingmar Bergman sequence and The Exorcist without embarrassing itself. To point out the Bergman connection would be too big of a spoiler, but I loved its subversion of the schlocky Friedkin classic, by signifying that true possession occurs by way of religious belief, rather than by leasing space to the Satanic Boogeyman.
Writer/director Rose Glass puts us inside the head of her title character, a young palliative care nurse and recent convert to Catholicism. After a traumatic hospital experience only vaguely alluded to in the short prologue, Maud (Morfydd Clark) has turned to home health, her first charge a forty-something circling the drain of terminal cancer. Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) was a famous dance choreographer, who continues to enjoy visits from fellow artists and her younger lover Carol (Lily Frazer).
Initially, their nurse-patient relationship is easy and affectionate, even if Amanda can be imperious. Amanda notices Maud’s piety after she prays over their meal, gently quizzing her about it. Amanda is a student of motion – her book entitled The Body Is a Stage is prominently displayed in one scene – and seems especially intrigued when Maud describes God’s responses to her prayers in orgasmic terms.
Frequent voiceover, sometimes drily comical, conveys Maud’s dialogue with God. Like many aspects of her character, her prayers will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone once a zealous convert. Maud’s inner conversations are a mix of the naively arrogant (“you’ve saved me for something great”), bargaining, and bitter self-loathing when silence is God’s response.
Amanda starts warmly if condescendingly referring to Maud as “my savior,” later giving her a book of William Blake’s mystical artwork. Maud interprets these as signs that Amanda’s soul is ripe for saving, jealously attempting to bar her charge’s contact with her worldly friends. A particularly humiliating interaction between the two only heightens Maud’s evangelistic zeal, while detaching her further from reality.
Through masterful editing, Saint Maud alternates points of view, showing us how Maud’s take on the world is distorted through her filter of faith. The English seaside town chosen for the story’s setting amplifies this theme of layers of perception: the garish neon and forced gaiety fail to cover the town’s depressing drabness. Likewise, the judiciously doled out special effects, combined with unsettling camera angles, make evident Maud’s mounting derangement.
The casting choices in Saint Maud are perfect. As Maud, Morfydd Clark convincingly embodies the ways a believer’s unity with the divine can lead to profound loneliness and an awkward incapacity for social engagement. Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda is a splendid secular antithesis, expressing the moodiness, misery, fear, and tedium that accompany a slow dying, making it plausible she would latch onto Maud as a distracting curiosity in her final weeks.
Glass’ theme of religion as a destructive delusion seems especially timely, as last week saw the publication of a survey revealing that 27% of White American evangelicals have “progressed” from a worldview constructed around a book of fables to putting their faith in Donald Trump as a champion foe of liberal pedophiles. This theme is equally timeless: in the same week, US Representative Jamie Raskin quoted Voltaire during the impeachment hearings. As Raskin reminded us, the 18th Century anticlerical philosopher famously wrote, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
(Saint Maud is now streaming on Epix.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )