REVIEW: Saint Maud [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 84 minutes
    Release Date: October 9th, 2020 (UK) / January 29th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: StudioCanal UK / A24
    Director(s): Rose Glass
    Writer(s): Rose Glass

Never waste your pain.

After attempting to get her young nurse to agree with a mean-spirited comment about a just departed houseguest, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) remarks that, “We don’t see what we don’t want to see.” Maud (Morfydd Clark) never disagreed with her, though. She simply stated that she didn’t notice. That’s nevertheless enough to make her the enemy in this instance. That’s enough for Amanda to grow defensive (towards herself) because that anger is the only thing keeping her warm against what she deems emotional betrayal. And who’s to blame her? Who’s to stop her desire to drop all pretenses and speak her mind now that cancer rendered time and decorum moot? It’s not therefore that Maud doesn’t want to see. It’s that Amanda does. True or not, it brings comfort.

Who’s it hurting anyway? The man who left them? So what? Amanda herself? Maybe. That feeling of righteous sanctimony is fleeting after all. For all we know Amanda will apologize or blame the alcohol she consumed. She’ll say, “It’s not me.” She’ll lament how the illness has frustrated her and shortened her temper. But even if it hurts in hindsight, it’s not necessarily dangerous. No, danger lies in deep-seated delusions that become reality rather than a momentary window through which someone briefly deciphers it. Danger exists in blind devotion and zealotry—dancing along the line that separates faith from madness. It’s present in that room too, just not with her. Because while Maud doesn’t see what Amanda’s annoyance does, she does see something. She sees God.

And what’s more dangerous than that? As writer/director Rose Glass posits during the course of her debut feature Saint Maud: nothing. Nothing has the potential to spark bloodshed and genocide quite like religion’s propensity for mass delusions. Maud may not be looking to start a war, but she is searching for meaning in her recent hardships. She’s looking for a purpose to what she endured and a reason why her life was saved when the ramifications of that incident (incomplete glimpses are shown throughout) pushed her to the brink. That this nurse was able to find another job is a miracle. That this job is with someone like Amanda—someone struggling to stay afloat as disease and vice pull her under—proves it’s a task towards acquiring redemption.

To therefore call Maud pious is misleading since it wasn’t long ago that she wasn’t. The aforementioned incident changed her. It put her in a mindset that allowed God to enter and take control. And I don’t say that as a lark. God is in control. He gives her pain when she steers off-course and (orgasmic) pleasure when she follows his plan. Maud is thus devout out of necessity. Her actions are as much about survival as they are spirituality. So when Amanda takes a shine to the innocent, maternal nature moving beyond her duties as an in-home nurse, Maud embraces that affection as kinship. More than a career, helping Amanda becomes her Christian duty. It’s not one she takes lightly either. Especially not when her patient does.

Glass never hides this truth. Whether it’s Amanda’s wry grin each time she goes along with Maud’s rapturous response to the Lord or Maud’s penchant for self-harm as penance, we’re keenly aware that this is the journey of a woman alone. Those around Maud feel pity and fascination rather than respect and appreciation. Those who know of her past feel confusion and discomfort by what she’s become. But none of it fazes her when she recognizes their patronizing tone. She doesn’t need them. They need her. So the worse things get, the more emboldened she becomes. When God tests her resolve, Maud rises to the occasion en route to a final display of love and devotion that the world will be unable to ignore. She was chosen.

That’s much scarier than a manifestation of demonic presence or some nihilistic look at mankind’s brutality. Watching Maud’s rage wash away with a smile is what gives viewers a shiver because we’ve seen it first-hand ourselves. We all know that pious someone so entrenched in their belief system as a means of self-preservation that they’ll tell you you’re literally going to Hell if you don’t let Jesus into your heart. These are people with an angelic calmness while spewing hateful, bigoted words under the unassailable knowledge that their “right” and “wrong” trumps your freedom and happiness. And as we’ve witnessed those people descend further inside themselves as some superior voice on morality before politicizing their faith into a doctrine that condones harm, we can anticipate Maud’s tragic destination.

Where Glass uses this universal archetype to keep us on edge with what we presume, however, she adds a second level of suspense by staying with Maud’s point-of-view. This isn’t an objective look by an outside observer. This is Maud’s subjective truth as experienced through her eyes. That means that our presumptions might be flawed because they come from a place grounded in reality. But to watch Saint Maud progress its narrative on-screen is to quickly realize the opposite. What if everything Maud says is true? What if God is talking to her? Who are we to know His plan? Maybe the connections her brain makes are sound. Maybe coincidence is nothing but fate revealing a pathway to salvation. Maybe hope will conquer futility. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?

This possibility makes the film worthwhile despite the slow burn of uncertainty surrounding its heroine causing some viewers to grow impatient towards how Glass has set her plot in motion. None of what she shows us is wasted, though. Those glimpses into the past provide Maud’s obvious instability just as the quiet moments of joy in the present provide confirmation of her mission. These two halves of her identity must eventually collide as Clark breathlessly traverses the struggle between truth and desire. God must eventually appear as Himself or a figment of her insanity. The whole therefore becomes like one of the tornadoes spinning in Maud’s view. It tightens and tightens before touching down to wreak its havoc—building to a split-second curtain pull not to be missed.

[1] Morfydd Clark Courtesy of A24
[2] Jennifer Ehle Courtesy of A24
[3] Morfydd Clark Courtesy of A24

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