E.L. King calls Rose Glass' Saint Maud a portrait of mental illness and devout delusion leading to a terrifying confrontation of faith, morality, and martyrdom.
Writer and director Rose Glass, in her directorial debut, delivers a portrait of mental illness and devout delusion leading to a terrifying confrontation of faith, morality, and martyrdom that takes psychological horror to a new level. Saint Maud follows a reclusive young nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark), whose impressionable demeanor causes her to pursue a pious path of religious devotion after an obscure trauma hidden just under the surface in a mountain of subtext that audiences may struggle to grasp. Maud is charged with the hospice care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a retired dancer ravaged by cancer. Amanda is carefree, with an artist's spirit, and fluid in her sexuality. Her lifestyle and lack of morality cause Maud significant discomfort, leading to a beautiful tension between them.
Maud’s fervent faith inspires an obsessive conviction — she must save Amanda’s soul from eternal damnation, whatever the cost. Maud experiences a clear descent into madness, exposing the thinly veiled masks we wear when our minds are afflicted. It's an experience that is both isolating and horrifying. For Maud, it manifests as delusions of extreme pleasure when she believes that God approves of her deeds and intense fear when the rush of dopamine fades. She fervently believes a sinister force is determined to prevent her from achieving her goals and God's plan for her. We haven’t seen religious obsession this frightening since Margaret White in Carrie (1976).
We experience everything through Maud’s perspective and while she appears to be meek, as her faith magnifies, she begins to lose her grasp on reality. She becomes angry, aggressive, and anxiety-ridden over time. Some of her delusions can only be described as orgasmic in moments she believes she’s in communion with God. Maud describes the response she receives to prayer as being physical, “It’s like he’s physically in me.” It’s presumably the most erotic thing audiences will witness while characters are fully clothed.
When viewing the film through a queer lens, it's evident that Maud has moral and religious objections to Amanda's sexuality and promiscuity. Amanda pays the gorgeous party girl, Carol (Lily Frazer) to be with her as a way of avoiding her inevitable mortality. Maud feels Carol is taking advantage, but she also reads as a queer-coded character, jealous of Amanda bestowing her attention and affection on someone else. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Maud is a lesbian, but a scene in which she experiences a delusional orgasm with Amanda points undeniably in that direction. Ultimately, Maud’s real issue with the relationship between Amanda and Carol is that it’s disruptive to her patient’s path to redemption in the eyes of God.
Saint Maud is not a gore-filled thrill ride, but there is light body horror and it subtly builds suspense leading up to several horrifying conclusions. Maud’s mantra is to “never waste your pain,” and this unnervingly brilliant line is an early warning sign her faith is meant to shield her from nature from not only the world but Maud herself. The true mastery of the film is its psychological horror and the erosion of Maud’s mind. Clark gives a convincing portrayal of a young woman who believes she is a martyr and vessel for God’s judgment. Ehle expertly plays the temptress reigning over the Garden of Eden, unwilling to give up her forbidden fruit to follow a righteous path. The two have incredible chemistry that is both endearing and uneasy. A female-led cast is always a refreshing thing to see in a horror film.
There are lingering things eating away at me about Maud, but alas the film ends with a blinding flame of judgment with many questions left unanswered. Striking, scary, and original, Saint Maud is well crafted, acted, written, and directed. It’s a brilliant first feature from Glass and an equally mesmerizing and unnerving work of horror cinema.
Saint Maud is now streaming on Paramount+.