The eponymous heroine of Saint Maud, the horror-tinged debut feature of the English writer-director Rose Glass, isn’t really named Maud. A young nurse working as a home hospice aide, she has rechristened herself after a traumatic experience with a patient sparked her conversion to Christianity. As to whether Kate-turned-Maud really is a saint—or for that matter, a heroine—opinions may differ right up to this psychological thriller’s last gooseflesh-raising shot. But one thing is certain: As played with searing intensity by the Welsh actress Morfydd Clark, the damaged, possibly delusional, and almost certainly dangerous Maud is a character you won’t soon forget.
The same goes for Maud’s patient Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a celebrated modern dancer and choreographer in the late stages of lymphoma. Amanda doesn’t get as much screen time as Maud—there’s not much to spare in this 84-minute gem of a movie. But she’s every bit as complex a character, dry-humored to the point of nihilism one minute, needy and vulnerable the next. After an unsettling cold open hinting at the events that led to Maud’s conversion, she moves into Amanda’s Gothic hilltop mansion in an unnamed seaside town. (The exteriors were filmed in Scarborough, a melancholy resort town in Northern England with a strip of neon-lit pleasure palaces that seem preserved in 1970s aspic.) Almost immediately the two women begin a sadomasochistic cat-and-mouse game, each one trying to turn the other into the person she needs her to be.
For Maud that means pushing Amanda, a staunch atheist, to join in her fervent daily prayer sessions. (When it comes to making religious ecstasy look sexual, Bernini statues have nothing on Maud.) For Amanda it means trying to break through Maud’s self-punishing refusal of earthly pleasures and tease her into enjoying life a little. Meanwhile Amanda, a dedicated libertine, pursues those same pleasures constantly without seeming to enjoy them much at all. She drinks too much, smokes nonstop, and frequently entertains a younger lover (Lily Frazer) who, to Maud’s outspoken disgust, appears to accept money in return for her visits. At a party, Amanda and her friends mock and humiliate the priggish nurse, leading to a vengeful response that gets Maud fired from her job. But her fixation on saving her ex-employer’s immortal soul is only just beginning.
The second half of the movie tumbles with Maud down a spiral of female solitude and hallucinatory madness that invokes cinematic precedents as varied as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. God—sometimes represented by a large beetle who patrols the walls of Maud’s dingy bedsit—starts communicating more directly with Maud, and the acts those communications drive her to range from hard-to-watch mortifications of the flesh to a scarily self-destructive night on the town. The line between reality and fantasy grows blurrier as the ever more disconnected Maud ties to reconcile her exalted visions of purity with the irreparably fallen world around her.
Glass has set herself a high bar to clear in one’s first feature: tackling hard-to-film ideas about faith, psychic trauma, and mental illness. Yet rather than seeming abstract or preachy, Saint Maud is visceral, sensuous, and tactile. The production design (by Paulina Rzeszowska) and cinematography (by Ben Fordesman) work together to create a sharp contrast between the velvety, carnal reds of Amanda’s lushly upholstered house and the pallid beiges of Maud’s ascetic flat. The relentless pacing (the editor is Mark Towns) sweeps the viewer up and carries her from one disturbing image or encounter to the next with seeming effortlessness. And the body-horror effects are all the creepier for being intermittent and subtle, as when Maud, in response to anguish, ecstasy, or some combination of the two, opens her mouth just slightly wider than any human mouth should be able to open. When the climactic encounter between the two women comes, it feels brutal and almost too swift—we’re used to horror movies that milk the ending for at least one extra jump scare—but also mysteriously right.
Clark, a trained stage actress who’s played supporting roles in Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, the TV miniseries Patrick Melrose, and last year’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, is a revelation as the fiercely uncompromising and heartbreakingly lonely Maud. And Jennifer Ehle is one of those rare performers whose every project is worth following, both because she chooses her roles with care and because she has a fierce native intelligence that seems to light up her characters from within. Often cast as a serene, nurturing type, she is a wicked thrill to watch in Saint Maud as an unsentimental hedonist cracking mordant jokes about her own imminent demise.
The only hints we get of Amanda’s dance career—a framed poster, a glimpse of a videotaped performance—suggest an artist of singular intensity and originality, someone who should have gotten a longer career as well as a longer life. Lucky for us that the women behind Saint Maud—Ehle, Clark, and the 31-year-old newcomer Rose Glass—still have plenty of life, and hopefully many movies, left in them.
Saint Maud was originally set to be released last spring; after being held back nearly a year because of the pandemic, it opens in theaters and drive-ins on Jan. 29 and begins streaming on Epix on Feb. 12. Even though the movie never had a public screening in 2020, I put it on my Top 10 list for the year as a kind of promise of all the great films to come in 2021. It’s a thrill to realize that, in ways that go beyond the movie release calendar, that future is finally starting to arrive.