Man, what is it with these first-time directors, coming out of relatively nowhere, to helm solid indie features with good casts that, despite it being their debut feature, seems like they’ve been directing for years? We’ve had plenty the past few years to reap the benefits from, especially from indie-arthouse darling studio A24, and for 2019 they’ve given us Saint Maud, the debut of English writer/director Rose Glass. Now granted, A24 only picked up the American distribution rights, but I still like to think they know what they’re doing; not that they had much to worry about (pandemic aside), as Saint Maud showcases Rose Glass as one of the most self-assured directors to spring out of the woodwork in the past few years.
Welsh actress Morfydd Clark owns the screen as Maud, a private care nurse and devout Catholic who gets sent to the home of Amanda Kohl, an American former dancer who is now locked up in her home with terminal cancer, basically awaiting her death. Seeing a chance to save the embittered Amanda’s eternal soul, Maud tries her best to convert her ward by sharing the grace of God with her, including cutting Amanda off from the few personal pleasures she does keep up with. It’s only after a birthday party Amanda holds that hints about Maud begin to coalesce, like her faith being a relatively new decision and a passerby in town one night referring to her by another name. Soon, a much more tragic portrait of Maud is painted for us of who she is and used to be, and Maud’s sanity begins to fray in her increasingly obsessive endeavors to both save Amanda’s soul and prove to herself that her own is worth saving as well. Much of what makes Saint Maud what it is is not apparent when the film first begins; this is another slow-burner film, opening with nary an introduction or explanation of the characters or the world they’re in, instead hopping directly into their lives and moving forward, leaving us to wonder about them and their pasts, which gradually are revealed to us as the film moves along. Normally, I’m not for a film starting off assuming we already know who everyone is and what things will be about, but with Saint Maud, I appreciated it because of Glass’ storytelling ability and the framing of the core aspects of the film; we’re not meant to already know Maud right from the get-go, and part of the film’s effect is learning about her past and what happened to her before she became the person we started out knowing her to be, so we can then gain a growing understanding of why she begins to slip off the edge of the cliff she is barely walking astride. The two main factors in making this film work are director Rose Glass, who has such a command of her story and world-building that you never once feel a single second of the film is not deliberate or by-the-book, and star Morfydd Clark, who is pulled along by Glass’ direction and her own knowledge of the character until Maud’s descent into the depths truly begins to pick up speed, and Clark portrays every ounce of this perfectly. Not to say the others involved in the production don’t bring their absolute best, but it is the anchor of Clark and the total grasp of Glass’ direction that brings everything together into the finely-honed machine this is, starting off slow and steady until you don’t even realize you’re barely holding on as you’re careening headlong into the abyss.
Slow-burners can be a bit taxing to start off with, but the understanding is that it will pay off on the back end, and boy does Saint Maud ever pay off; the last two scenes of the film are what makes the ride up to then absolutely worth the price of admission, and I already have the feeling the film’s ending will remain seared into my memory for quite a while to come. This is exactly what psychological horror ought to be; not a piece of this is not right where it should be, to where it becomes extremely difficult to think of ways the film could be better or things you might do differently to try and improve it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my grading films principally on their general entertainment value, the rating of this one would likely be higher than it is; from a general audience standpoint, I’m not sure all too many people will get what they want from this one, but from a filmmaking standpoint, I can’t think of any real notes to give, and I will hopefully be looking forward to whatever Rose Glass has cooking up for her next meal.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
You’re absolutely right about directors suddenly appearing, fully formed like Athena sprung whole from the head of Zeus. Glass approached both the writing and direction of this with an assurance that seems like she’s had a 10-year career and has walked tall through film festivals.
What this does so well is blur that line between the real world and what is happening in Maud’s head so that we’re never really sure what is real and what is not until the very end, although we have our suspicions. The other thing it does is give Maud that kind of desperate confidence that she is absolutely right and knows she should be in charge of the lives and free will of those around her. It’s absolutely what is terrifying about religious faith to me; anyone that convinced by anything feels free and empowered to do anything they feel is right, no matter the cost.