If God exists then so must The Devil in Rose Glass’ stunning debut Saint Maud which sees a pious young nurse who experiences beatific visions become obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Saint Maud is a strange, gorgeous, and deeply disturbing chiller which mixes psychological, religious, and body horror to form something that feels utterly original. Very definitely a genre movie, this is “elevated” horror that messes with your perceptions of what’s real and what isn’t and comes with an ending that’s so simultaneously euphoric and horrific it feels like a punch in the heart.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a young private palliative care nurse looking after a former noted dancer dealing with late-stage cancer. Maud talks directly to God and feels his presence in almost orgasmic ecstasy and when Amanda tells Maud she can feel Him too, Maud believes it’s a sign and her mission is to deliver Amanda from evil.
In Maud’s eyes at least – and cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s camera is very much Maud’s point of view – Amanda is the perfect sinner, shown incessantly smoking, drinking, having sex, and throwing lavish parties for her artistic friends. Meanwhile Maud lives in pious poverty, alone in a run down flat. Hints at past trauma suggests the newly converted Maud has demons of her own she’d be better off focusing on – it’s a story about mental health as much as spiritual and corporeal themes.
Meanwhile older, more experienced Amanda has other needs and desires. Once glamorous and celebrated, Amanda is uniquely in touch with her body both as the dancer she was and even as it lets her down – while Maud actively rejects hers, buttoned up in her nurse’s uniform, revealing slashes of self-harm, and later enacting excruciating rituals of pious torture on herself. Maud’s agony and ecstasy is purely spiritual, her perceived higher purpose is juxtaposed against the squalor of her tiny flat. The film is set against the flashing lights and faded glamour of a seaside town (shot in Scarborough) where the locals seem like demons. Fordsman’s camerawork is inventive, full of drunken lurches and pulsing sensuality, and the everyday dinginess of Maud’s existence is used to great effect, with shots of tomato soup boiling in a pan looking like a glimpse into the lakes of hell. If anything, it can be a bit over-stylised at times, though it serves well to reflect the chaos and confusion of Maud’s mental state.
Ehle is excellent but this is very much Clark’s movie and sets her out as one of the most interesting young actors around, both fragile and fierce as the conflicted Maud, as her God embraces and forsakes her. It’s a challenging role and the whole film hinges on her performance, but Clark is never less than achingly sympathetic even when Saint Maud leans into its genre tropes.
Saint Maud isn’t really like anything else around, though the closest comparisons could be Julia Ducournau’s cannibal movie Raw – Saint Maud is similarly female and visceral – or possibly Ari Aster’s Hereditary in that both are almost oppressively harrowing at points. But while Aster’s film is controlled and theatrical, Saint Maud is more naturalistic in feel in general with celestial and infernal visuals peppered throughout. Maud’s infrequent interactions with ordinary people in the town – a former co-worker, Amanda’s new nurse – are deliciously jarring. It’s as if outside the sacred space of Maud’s flat and the dark den of iniquity of Amanda’s house Maud shouldn’t exist in the real world.
To say this is a confident debut from Glass, who won a £500,000 bursary on the strength of the film, would be an understatement. On this low budget, very British movie alone Glass now stands with Aster, Ducourneau, Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele, and Jennifer Kent as one of the most exciting and distinctive voices in horror today.
Packed with incredible moments and indelible images, there is so much to unravel here it would certainly reward multiple viewings. In Saint Maud God, and The Devil, are in the details.
Saint Maud opens in US theaters on April 10 and in UK cinemas on May 1