But For The Grace of God
words by Graham Williamson
A haunting debut feature from Rose Glass, Saint Maud was originally scheduled to be released in British cinemas on May 1st. It resurfaces at a tense time for the UK exhibition sector, but from a purely artistic perspective, five months on the shelf has done nothing to weaken the bitter, steely intensity of Glass’s film.
Indeed, it might be better that it comes out now; it’s hard to imagine Clap For Carers would have taken off this spring if we’d been introduced to Morfydd Clark’s title character beforehand.
Maud is a hospice nurse specialising in-home care for the terminally ill. She lives in a tiny apartment, her only company a cockroach big enough to put one in mind of David Lynch’s “frog-moths”. The seaside town where the film is set is unnamed (it was partially shot in Scarborough) but full of atmosphere: grey, rain-sodden, illuminated only by the garish lights of amusement arcades, you can almost taste the rotting seaweed gases.
The only hint of glamour is her patient, Amanda, a successful dancer with lymphoma played by Jennifer Ehle. But Maud isn’t interested in her prestigious career, her art-world associates or even the sex worker (Lily Frazer) Amanda pays to attend to the needs Maud can’t. Maud sees Amanda as a soul to be saved, and this conviction will quickly harden into fanaticism.
Saint Maud is the kind of moody, psychological, deliberately-paced piece that, ten years ago, would have been dubbed “slow-burn”. These days such films are burdened with the even-worse appellation “elevated horror”, a tag which understandably irks a lot of horror fans. Personally, this reviewer likes intelligent horror films – so long as we accept that intelligence can mean the tightly-constructed, exuberantly trashy likes of Ready or Not, as well as a contemplative art-house piece like Personal Shopper. It would be foolish to consider a film as precision-made as Evil Dead 2 to be “un-elevated” just because of its lack of self-seriousness.
Fortunately, Saint Maud has all of the strengths of the slow-burn school with none of the liabilities. It eschews cheap scares in favour of atmosphere and psychological depth; it’s also a brisk 84 minutes and remains comfortably two or three steps ahead of the audience. The style of Saint Maud, with Adam Janota-Bzowski’s subtle score and Ben Fordesman’s cinematography hovering just a fraction of an inch above realism, is so complete and absorbing that it’s easy to miss how much ground the film covers.
Glass’s script gets its core ideas across quickly, without belabouring any of its points. Once we recognise that mind/body duality will be a key theme, we can appreciate how the two lead characters differ in their attitudes towards it. For Maud, the body is little more than a container for the soul and must be kept pristine for that reason. For Amanda, it’s little more than an instrument, and now it’s failing her she has no compunction getting the last drops of pleasure out of it with cigarettes, sex and whisky.
Maud, obviously, finds this abhorrent, but her own attitude towards her body – mortifying it in order to reach religious ecstasies – is closer to Amanda’s than she realises. And they certainly are ecstasies. The overall mood of the film is a long way from Ken Russell, let alone Nigel Wingrove, but there is still an unmistakably orgasmic quality to Maud’s spiritual highs. Her belief that Amanda’s soul can be saved comes from one of these ecstatic states, this time triggered by a vaguely intimate stretching exercise they perform together.
Initially, the film is set up as a duel between Amanda and Maud, and when both leads are on this form you wouldn’t complain. Ehle underplays Amanda’s suffering, but you’re always clear that it’s Amanda, not Ehle, who’s acting here. She undermines her character’s facade of waspish indifference with the tiniest gestures – a little croak in the voice, a little pain in the smile – that exposes what she’s really feeling.
Ehle has been continually in demand for stage and screen work since her breakthrough alongside Colin Firth in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. She’s recently been in the spotlight – not with a new film, but with Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller that became a counterintuitive comfort watch earlier this year. Contagion sees Ehle’s gentle, selfless virologist casually steal the whole film from a lot of more famous performers; in Saint Maud she performs the opposite trick, taking the flashier, more extroverted role but ceding the real spotlight to her co-star.
Clark has been a likely breakout star for a long time now. If you’re a fan of British folk horror – and you’re here, so you probably are – you may remember her as the art teacher in Carol Morley’s The Falling. There, she increased the film’s already nerve-wracking levels of ambient anxiety simply by being so nice and innocent that you knew she couldn’t last long in Morley’s hexed world. In Saint Maud, though, she is the film’s threat, and she adjusts to this without relying on the kind of histrionics a lesser actor might resort to.
Just looking at Maud’s face, it’s impossible to accept that this is the same actor who, in the same year, played the beaming, rosy-complexioned Dora Spenlow in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. Yet even that film pointed to her darker side. As Iannucci noted with amusement, nobody who watched his film seemed to realise Clark also plays David’s screaming, stressed-out mother. Here, she creates a body language for Maud that tells you so much about her personality before she says a word. Maud is dark-eyed and tight-lipped; you’d call her mousy if her stance wasn’t so upright and defiant. The only time when the lines of her body become more fluid are when she has a vision, causing her jaw to unhook as alarmingly as Keira Knightley’s in A Dangerous Method.
As Maud’s religious mania becomes more apparent, Glass simultaneously narrows and opens up her film. Narrows because it becomes more of a character study of Maud, rather than her rivalry with Amanda. Expands because, in looking at the world through Maud’s eyes, it has to address the spiritual in ways most modern films won’t dare.
Indeed, the last act of Saint Maud could be read as a genre dialogue with Paul Schrader’s famous writing on “transcendental style”. In the early scenes, Glass’s camera has a subtle Bergmanesque quality. The long, quiet shots of Maud with her back to the camera as she stares at a crucifix recall Winter Light in particular. Schrader argued, however, that the purpose of this visual austerity was to make the audience feel transported when the film’s self-imposed rules were broken. Schrader broke them very memorably in his 2017 film First Reformed; Glass, as a horror director, knows the audience will expect her to go even further, and she does.
As with Robert Eggers’s The Witch, Saint Maud‘s visualisation of its protagonist’s belief system is likely to divide opinion, although Glass is much clearer about what the reality underpinning her Blakeian fantasia is. Also, like The Witch – and The Falling, and quite a lot of other horror movies of this decade – Saint Maud is a film about faith which takes belief seriously. Just as Eggers implied a rationalist reading of his film by referencing ergot poisoning in Act One, so Glass appears to have paid attention to recent research linking religious visions with temporal lobe epilepsy. That, though, is a mere hint, quickly pushed into the background by Maud’s unshakeable belief.
If anything deserves the label intelligent, it must be this – Saint Maud is another modern horror film which deals with religion yet avoids the usual pitfalls of uncritical devotion and sneering mockery. Maud is not a well woman, but she’s an understandable one. Her belief that there has to be more than the miserable landscape of damp-ridden flats and sleazy pubs she sees in her everyday life is easy to sympathise with. Even if she does end up doing unsympathetic things, her train of thought is disturbingly easy to follow.
Its box office may be unavoidably limited – aside from anything else, people might feel anxious enough going back to the cinema without the film stressing them out further. Whatever happens, it’s a remarkably confident, creepy piece of work, a film which disturbs without sacrificing empathy, and which represents an unmistakable breakthrough for both Glass and Clark.
Saint Maud is on general release in UK cinemas from Friday 9th October
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