Published Jan 28, 2021Saint Maud delves into holy horrors and supernatural scariness — but, above all, the film's more frightening elements are rooted in earthly pain.
For the titular Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young nurse who channels her born-again Christianity into caring for the "decrepit and dying" as a way to forge her own path to salvation, her pain comes in the form of penance and devotion to God, a whiplash reaction to her past secular life. Her patient, a famous dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), is dying of cancer, and Maud assumes the task of helping the ailing woman in atoning for her frivolous life — one marked by defiant sexuality and substance abuse — and the pair discover a shared loneliness.
"I think the idea of people feeling lonely and alienated and like they live in a little bubble [is] something a lot of people can relate to now," director Rose Glass tells Exclaim! "I was more interested in exploring that through the relationship that [Maud]'s got with God in a way. The relationship that she has with God is quite similar to the relationship some people might have with their fucking Instagram or something, in that she's performing for somebody. Everything she does is for the purpose of somebody else seeing it and getting their approval."
Maud's fraught compassion morphs quickly into zealotry as she learns more about Amanda's sinful past, and she tries to reconcile her patient's damnation with reparation. The nurse's internal struggle manifests in ritualistic prayer and self-harm, which she bears with sick, saintly pleasure. Hellish spectres are exorcised through bloody self-inflicted punctures, brutal burns, and the pain of death and sickness.
"I don't have an all-encompassing stance on people hurting themselves because, I guess, maybe, what I find interesting is that there are so many different reasons why someone might hurt themselves, and so many different things you [might] get out of it," says Glass of Maud's almost sexual relationship to punishment. "Pleasure for one person or pain for another."
She continues: "And obviously, there's a history — and not just in Christianity, but a lot of faith — of pain being some sort of penance, I guess, and sort of a display of loyalty, and [commitment] and devotion and also atoning for sins. So that's all kind of pretty baked in quite easily to her discovery of Christianity."
Wandering in and out of body horror, the movie's surreal examination of Maud's yearning for transcendence contrasts the human condition, being "trapped in these weird fleshy things," and constantly searching for the path to what lies beyond the mortal plane.
"I felt like she's somebody who's got a complicated relationship with her body," says Glass. "In her head, the relationship that she's got going on with God and the journey that she's going on, this takes on such delusions of grandeur. She wants to feel connected to something bigger than herself and sort of feel seen as important."
Glass explains that she aimed to make the film feel "timeless," shooting on location in the town of Scarborough, UK, a queasy seaside tourist trap that features its own "Coney Island" boardwalk attraction, among other circusy artifacts that further obfuscate the film's ties to reality. The contrast between Maud's internal world and her location is deformed and nauseating. And it casts a deliberately confusing image.
"There's something of a warped fairytale to the setting," Glass says, "[Maud is] someone who sees the outside world as quite a strange place. I wanted the place to feel a bit strange to us. I wasn't interested in being like, 'I want to tell a story about what it's like to live in this part of the UK in 2019' or whatever. I wanted it to be a sort of everywhere-and-nowhere kind of place."
With its limited cast and focus on segregation from the outside world, the film, if somewhat prophetically, has inadvertently become a horrific encapsulation of life in the post-COVID era. Glass couldn't have predicted Saint Maud's prescience during its production in 2018, but the pandemic has only made the movie more relevant in 2021.
The pain that Maud endures is symptomatic of her religious delusions brought on by social isolation, while Amanda's sickness compounds her own loneliness — both attributes of our current state. While the pair are at moral odds, they meet in their desire for human connection, even if they fail to find meaning in their unlikely relationship.
"It makes a story open up. The story itself feels a bit more universal or allegorical," Glass explains.
"It's not about showing what it's like to be a person in this very specific time and place in the world. I was more interested in the kind of universal timeless existential shit," she laughs. "That sounds really pretentious."
On the contrary — that kind of "existential shit" is as commonplace now as it ever has been.
Says Glass, "I hope that it's something that sort of gets under people's skin and sticks in their minds a bit. I hope ultimately it's an exciting, interesting story that hopefully is worth the hour and 23 minutes of people's time."