Writer-director Rose Glass’s debut Saint Maud is perhaps one of the most widely anticipated films affected by the COVID-19 scheduling pushbacks of 2020...
...Originally slated to release in April last year, it is finally arriving on the scene through the somewhat unconventional release combination of theaters and EPIX. Much to my delight, it has proven more than worth the wait.
Saint Maud follows a young home-care nurse (Morfydd Clark) who has recently embarked on a spiritual commitment following a tragic accident at her previous job. She takes a job caring for the magnetic Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer now dying of cancer. While there, she forms a relationship with Amanda that leads her to believe it is her destiny to save Amanda’s soul, a goal she will go no small lengths to achieve. As the film progresses, the lines between the real and the imagined, the physical and the spiritual begin to blend to near indistinguishability and we watch as Maud descends into a kind of madness in the name of twisting the world to her beliefs. Unlike the fanaticism more commonly seen in film—and perhaps in reality—Maud is not twisting the world to make it fit her ideas in order to achieve a sense of power and superiority over others; indeed, she seems to need to twist it to preserve her occasionally tenuous grasp on her own sanity.
Saint Maud is first and foremost a fascinating and devastating character study of a woman lost and invisible, both in society at large and within herself, in search of a connection to a deeper sense of purpose. She finds this purpose not from her job caring for the ill and dying in their final days—a job which, within the film, renders its staff invisible by way of being completely interchangeable—but from her uniquely intense relationship to God. A relationship centrally built, it seems, around the idea of repentance through various acts of self-inflicted pain. Glass shows herself sharply attentive to detail throughout the film, from Maud’s choice patron saint of Mary Magdalene to Amanda’s shrewd gift of a book of William Blake’s paintings to Maud. Maud herself is a woman remade in a new image; we learn as the film progresses that she has shed all connection to her old life in an effort to pursue the deepest spiritual reawakening possible. With this in mind, we see not only the malleable nature of religious interpretations and the subjective nature of an individual’s understanding of the world, but also just how important a choice Mary Magdalene is as Maud’s patron saint.
Maud can easily be read as the film’s Mary Magdalene equivalent: at her most boiled-down level, a woman with a sinful past who finds herself forgiven and recast in an image more connected to God than she ever imagined, and all the more powerful for it. And indeed, Maud does imagine herself as having a kind of power. In particular the God-given power to save Amanda’s lost and wandering soul before her death. If we learn anything immediately about Maud it is the intensity of her devotion to her idea of God, and thus the intensity of her belief in the power and purpose he has assigned to her in her time of questioning and revelation. Both of these passions amount to a rather distorted sense of reality, one we find ourselves navigating alongside her as she follows her path to its startling conclusion.
Saint Maud is an incredibly strong film in virtually every department. Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle are equally alluring and complex, playing their roles as two opposing sides of the same coin off each other with velvet sharpness. Fierce yet tender and unapologetically cruel to each other in the smallest ways, Maud and Amanda form the core of the story and it is Amanda’s backhanded compliment labeling Maud “my little saviour” that sends her spiraling for the rest of the film. Ben Fordesman’s cinematography gives the film an almost liquid, insidious feel, weaponizing the play between light and darkness at every turn. He, in conjunction with Clark’s acting, Paul Davies and team’s sound design, and Adam Janota Bzowski’s original score, manages to build and release tension with an equal and effective rapidity I have not often seen in any genre. The editing of the film itself, by Mark Towns, is no small player to the way we witness the clashing versions of Maud’s subjective reality and the reality everyone else around her inhabits and as such is indispensable to our understanding of the story.
Saint Maud feels like a directorial debut not soon forgotten. It is the epitome of effective slow burn, and its characters, while all flawed, are also given the space to exercise their own agency. Amanda pursues her desires despite her deteriorating condition, and so too, in a way, does Maud. Maud chooses the way she expresses the depth of her faith to her God and to herself, for better or worse. While doing so strains her connection to reality to unreachable lengths, this is the first time I’ve seen all the agency in a religious context given to a woman, and for that Saint Maud is a refreshing if insidious articulation of the lengths to which loneliness and isolation push us all.
Saint Maud comes to EPIX starting February 12th and is in select theaters now from A24.
By Katelyn Nelson
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