Programme Notes: Saint Maud

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Available now on Glasgow Film At Home

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

In this phenomenal feature debut from Rose Glass, a terrifying vision of religious fervour and despondent isolation is expertly crafted. Saint Maud follows the palliative care nurse Maud, played with simultaneously naive and forceful intensity by Morfydd Clark, who takes on the job of caring for fading star Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) as she lives her final months with terminal cancer. Maud speaks directly to God, feeling His presence with writhing ecstasy, and is thoroughly convinced that God has sent her on a mission to save Amanda’s soul before she dies. 

Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal of Amanda is striking and dynamic, the antithesis of Maud’s subdued presentation. A former famous dancer and choreographer, Amanda chain-smokes, drinks, throws lavish parties and engages in lesbian sex with an escort, dressing in luxurious fabrics and fabulous wigs. The mansion in which she lives is an expanded expression of Amanda, dark and mysterious, once glamorous but now fading. The house is almost a character unto itself, imposing with a life seemingly of its own, the archetypal haunted house full of shadow and dark memory, its walls heaving under the heavy air within its corridors. With beautifully macabre production design by Paulina Rzeszowska, this otherworldly (or perhaps, underworldly) setting highlights Maud’s marked difference as she is placed uncomfortably within it. 

Maud’s muted neutral attire and drab abode are presented in stark contrast to the decadence within the walls of Amanda’s home. Where Amanda indulges in pleasure, Maud self-flagellates. Amanda’s lesbian dalliances seem to both repulse and arouse Maud in equal measure. In a film that dedicates so much of its thematic expression to religion, it is hard not to align this lesbian element of the film with that of the satanic, calling in references to films like Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness or Dario Argento’s Suspiria. If Maud is a vessel of the divine, then Amanda is a vessel for the demonic - a theory seemingly confirmed towards the end of the film. Speaking about her relationship with the sex worker Carol, Amanda remarks that she can’t figure out if Maud is ‘a bigot, or if she’s just jealous.’ For Maud, her and Amanda’s connection is ‘spiritual...on another level.’ It's interesting to note - with regards to Maud’s own identity - that the saint she aligns herself with, and wears the icon of around her neck, is that of Mary Magdalene; the parallels here are impossible to ignore. 

Saint Maud has been referred to by many critics as ‘elevated horror’, though it is hard to exactly pin down its genre. It is a superb mix of the psychological and the religious, and while there are indeed horrific images of satanic condemnation (with plenty of body horror to make even the most hardened horror fan wince) the real horror in this film lies within the fragility of Maud’s mental state: the horrors of mental illness, of isolation, alienation, and of religious and social abandonment. In a particularly jarring scene in a local pub (one of the few where she is uncomfortably placed in the ‘real’ world), Maud desperately tries to connect with anyone, attempting to laugh along with the people sitting beside her, desperate for any kind of human connection. Her final horrifically euphoric moments in the film are made all the more distressing when we have felt her palpable loneliness that preceded it.  

These unsettling themes are beautifully portrayed through the camera work by cinematographer Ben Fordesman. Representing Maud’s point of view, we see haunting shadow and irregular angles, pulsing focus and unstable swaying. 

The contortion of Maud’s body as she seizes with orgasmic divine possession can also be seen mirrored in the angular and eerie dance footage of Amanda’s performances. Describing these possessions to Amanda, Maud says 'It's like he's physically in me or around's like a pulsing and it's all warm and good.' As Amanda has now lost control of her body to illness, so too does Maud as she seizes under God.  

Interestingly, in the scene in which God speaks directly to Maud, the voice is actually that of Morfydd Clark herself, speaking in her native Welsh and pitched down to a demonic deep timbre. That the God in which Maud believes in is actually the voice of herself, perhaps can be analysed as a statement on religious belief itself. That which we believe in, is as much about our own ideas of belief and desire, as an actual external divinity to which we allegedly owe our lives. 

Both impossibly stylish and brimming with substance, Rose Glass’s feature debut is one that demands multiple viewings. With fantastic performances and full of incredible imagery, Saint Maud explores the tension of opposites, and the thin line that often straddles them: between the horrific and the divine, between the pious and the debauched, between belief and mental illness. With this first feature, Rose Glass has deftly marked herself as one of the most exciting voices in horror today.

Emma van der Putten 
Glasgow Film Industry Coordinator

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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