Saint Maud: Timid Prophet

Morfydd Clark has drifted into a creepy revelation of her inner power as the title character in Saint Maud, the debut film by the British director, Rose Glass. Her previous turns as alternately witty and unsettling characters in literary namesakes like Love & Friendship (2016) and The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) did not seem to contain Maud at the time. She has come roaring to life in this film in a way that manages to be equally withdrawn and histrionic. It’s like a neurological opera. She is immediately iconic, which implies an eventful career to come but also serves as a sign of the current film’s major failing. Like a religious icon, Saint Maud refers to a non-material image, one that can be believed in, at least in the abstract, but not experienced. It never becomes detailed or complex enough to earn what it asks the audience to believe (or what it believes of itself). The problem, in briefer terms, is that it mistook itself for a horror film.

The film’s setup is cruelly isolating, like one-act theater. Maud, newly converted to Christianity (though this is something clarified much later), takes over the nursing duties for a waning former dancer, Amanda, who suffers from a terminal illness. She’s played unrecognizably by the usually cheery Jennifer Ehle. They share leading lady duties and this dramatic situation smolders under their watch.

The film’s conflict is not merely religious. Even more central is Maud’s idea of how religion fits into daily life (and especially how it does not). She describes her experiences with the divine by recounting the touch of his unknowable presence with the clarity of an orgasm. Amanda is noticeably jealous, not just by Maud’s experience but by her lack of doubt. Maud slips into the role of a prude as Amanda struggles with her mortality, hiring a sex worker (Lily Frazer) to give herself a different kind of care, to Maud’s disappointment. Maud defaults into dutiful disdain, running their little household as people come and go. At one point, a party of wobbly, over-confident acquaintances recalls the get-togethers of Norma Desmond, whom the film brings up by name (the script at times seems so content in its prowess, it hopes to do my job too).

Between the physical therapy and the near misses with religious bliss (one powerful scene shows them touching and co-experiencing an involuntary rush of divine feeling), Saint Maud establishes itself as a drama. The haunting subtext of Maud’s breakdowns, as much over her heathen surroundings as her crumbling self-image, is more than enough to drive the film’s intangible sense of unease. Conversely, the hidden insistence that everything is the windup for a horror film reveals the film’s lack of clarity. Every scene that is set up for a scare would be better without one.

The film is at its best in scenes of personal drama. An old friend who visits Maud’s increasingly debilitating living space is one of its tensest because we have no idea if Maud’s obvious inner torture will explode or keep simmering. She rigs her shoes to prick her feet every time she walks, to remind herself that she walks in unworthy steps. The shrine-like setup in her room devolves from a quaint Sunday school display of crucifixes and pastel pictures of Jesus to a disjointed, fatalistic, tribal altar. All of this is genuinely mortifying, only compounded by her instinctual, angry sexual flings, which further emphasize her duality and the audience’s sense of unease. Maud believes in things so much bigger than herself that her life becomes a torture, not of doubt, but of certainty.

It’s all effective, yet floating. It is not grounded by any drama more detailed than what I have already described because this brisk 84-minute film decided that it also needed to be a horror movie, with wide-eyed CGI nightmares and jump-scares from literal demons. These scenes are effective for what they are – Glass takes even these low-concept setups and gives them more classy terror than they’re worth (any film in The Conjuring series would be blessed beyond reason to have anything this genuinely scary). The problem is that they are not needed in a film that is most interesting when it is most quiet.

The genuine terror at the heart of the situation between Maud and Amanda is that the viewer can’t tell who is more displaced. In the face of ultimate happiness through divine intervention, Maud has developed an irrational fear of her universe. Whenever she is not in that presence, she feels thwarted. Her sexual escapades, flagellation, social withdrawal, and uneven mood can all be read as examples of the torture of locking personal satisfaction behind the approval of an icon. Reflection has become a form of self-harm.

The issue with the film’s presentation of this instinctually powerful idea is that it draws clear distinctions (too clear) between Maud’s fantasy and reality. This shutters the story into a cynically paced series of sequences that splits its time between genuinely haunting character interactions and slow windups to comparatively minor scares that interrupt the story from Maud’s dream world. When the music drains out and the framing shifts a certain way, the experienced horror viewer is clenched for the surprise. Saint Maud didn’t need any – it needed to believe in its capacity as a drama. Horror becomes its escape hatch. The best example is Maud's final conversation with Amanda, which is a genuinely stomach-clenching dramatic exchange thwarted by a jump scare.

Stations of the Cross, the 2014 German film directed by Dietrich Brüggemann, provides the ideal comparison to Saint Maud’s comparatively unnuanced battle with faith. That film sustains itself as an art drama and builds twice as much tension as Glass’s film because of the mounting implications of how faith might really continue to degrade the human spirit when applied to a full dramatic context in reality. Maria in that film genuinely applies the doctrines taught to her, more accurately than her teachers ever intended, and it perverts her traditionalist teaching to reveal the unsettling, yet totally mundane horror beneath. The drama between her and her family, church, school, and more is detailed enough to be morally revelatory, which is a different kind of terror. It takes something that subtle to keep me up at night. The irony of throwing in a real (or imagined) demon is that by trying too hard to be scary, Saint Maud becomes comparatively safe.

Glass depicts an extreme that is most meaningful when implying something about normal life, yet the allure of this genre often forces it to apply only to the fantasy of horror films. Maud is a deeply disturbed person, though it is never clear if religion causes or simply supplements her radical worldview. Being in a "horror movie" seems more to blame than any of her personal failings since the film leaves the greatest opportunities for dramatic power half-finished. The film is presented with the tone of truth but jettisons its most interesting conflicts in favor of increasingly gruesome images of Maud’s physical self-torture, leading inevitably to jump-scares and a shocking conclusion presented self-indulgently as a shock (more self-indulgent because it has the tone of a risk when in the context of a horror film, it’s actually the safe move). Saint Maud aimed for revelatory terror, but in the context of the horror genre, its decisions are cathartic.

Maud is tormented by her incomplete personality, and Clark gives her the particular combination of labored shyness and self-exaltation needed to pull off a fake saint (at times she seems like the Welsh answer to a young Jodie Foster). But her question of faith is not applied beyond the pacing of a horror film. That climax zings the audience into a state of being stunned, but it’s another form of the bedazzlement inherent in religious images. It is materially impressive and may even lead to an experience that feels like enlightenment, but that feeling is only how it obscures the truth.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©StudioCanal/Film4

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