Saint Maud, more than anything, is a nervous breakdown picture.
Like many other films made pre-pandemic, Rose Glass’ debut feature takes on added, unplanned qualities that cannot be separated from authorial intent, as we, the audience, grapple with the ever-present dread and real-life drama of current existence. Hence, an unexplainable mental collapse filmed two years ago becomes an indictment of listlessness and the lack of purpose. An embrace of apocalyptic judgement brings not a submission to depression but orgasmic delight—and an uncomfortable transference from the textual to the all-too-empathetic viewer.
Morfydd Clark stars as Kate, a hospital nurse who suffers a mental breakdown that ends with the ghastly death of a patient. Now working in private care, she experiences a religious awakening and rechristens herself as Maud (though I was really hoping she’d go the Saul/Paul route and name herself Mate). Her new charge is Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a wheelchair-ridden ex-dancer and choreographer, of whom gives Maud a new purpose: converting the philistine showbiz woman and thus saving her soul before she dies from stage four lymphoma.
The first half of the film is the interlocking spiritual warfare between the two. Maud annoyingly interferes with her patient’s life, and in return, Amanda and her cohorts toy with Maud as if she is a character in a stage play. Disillusioned, Maud only retreats more into her piousness, fully untethering herself from reality, and lending the film’s second half a surreal and ambivalent quality.
As first films go, Glass delivers the goods. Though her style is fairly generic (every arthouse horror has to look and sound like Hereditary now), her confidence and total commitment to the character work over the more sensational elements speaks volumes to her maturity as a filmmaker. Glass is going places, so hitch your wagon to her star now.
Clark wins the day, of course, and her genius is a nifty, little two-step. A film like this can easily get bogged down in the bromidic "is-she-crazy-or-isn’t-she" business that’s been around since “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and Saint Maud does wade out into the shallow waters of this pool for a bit. However, Clark moderates her performance, infusing such a pathos as to do the impossible: making an overbearing religious person likable and a source of empathy.
And in the end, in these times, it feels almost like gaslighting. The tactile nature of the performance—a mental descent you can feel and touch—turns the whole "is-she-crazy-or-isn’t-she" into am-I-crazy? As the movie concludes, one can’t help but wonder whether succumbing to the dread is inevitable, or if finding solace in an age of isolation involves a similar kind of dissociative detachment.
Which, to say the least, is a rather unpleasant thought.