in Shocktober

Saint Maud (2020)

What year should I attribute Saint Maud to? It was an unusual COVID casualty, originally playing at TIFF in September 2019, where it was picked up by A24 and scheduled for an early 2020 release. That obviously didn’t happen, but A24 did optimistically postpone its release to July 2020, but… let me check my notes here… thing were still really bad then, so it was pulled entirely from their schedule. To add one additional wrinkle of complexity, it was released theatrically in the UK last October, but it didn’t come out here until late January. So you could make a case this is a 2019, 2020, or 2021 movie! I split the difference and went with the UK theatrical release, but don’t be surprised if I reconsider and make it a 2021 movie when list-making season comes. That is to say this whole preamble was just leading up to me admitting that I thought Saint Maud was quite good.

Morfydd Clark, an actor who has the unique distinction of being the only cast member of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings show who we know which character she is playing (Galadriel), stars here as Maud, a Catholic hospice nurse in a seaside town somewhere in England. My sleuthing has led me to believing it’s Scarborough, North Yorkshire, but Wikipedia just says “an English seaside town” so we’ll play it safe and go with that. Maud has been assigned Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), an American dancer who is terminally ill and has become something of a bitter shut-in. Amanda confides in Maud that she is scared to die, which Maud interprets as a divine calling to save this atheist’s soul.

Faith is a really, really big part of Maud’s life. She genuinely believes she can feel God’s presence and that He speaks to her through signs. When Amanda sarcastically asks Maud to “save her,” Maud is overcome with ecstasy so completely that she can’t even walk up the stairs. But Maud sees one major obstacle to Amanda’s redemption: Carol (Lily Frazer), a prostitute who Amanda pays for regular visits. Maud tries to put an end to this relationship by asking Carol to stop coming by, but that blows up in her face when Amanda mocks Maud about it at Amanda’s birthday party and reveals she has only been pretending to experience salvation. Maud strikes Amanda and leaves, but in the days to come must wonder one specific question: is this a test of faith?

While I don’t want to give away any more of where this particular story goes, it definitely feels like an A24 movie. Like somewhere right between The VVitch and First Reformed. Like those movies, where it succeeds the most is putting the audience in the shoes of the person experiencing a religious crisis. There’s just enough ambiguity that you can’t ever be certain: what happened in Maud’s mysterious past? Are supernatural events happening? Is Maud being gaslit or manipulated by sinister forces? Or is she just crazy? Coupled with an eery score and some choice VFX and you get an eerie, powerful little horror movie. And at only 84 minutes, it was exactly the type of little horror movie I think we all look for at this time of year.

Saint Maud was the first feature film written and directed by Rose Glass, a woman who has a very simple Squarespace site. Here she has demonstrated a gift for building atmosphere and getting great performances out of her actors. Morfydd Clark does some fucked up shit with her body and especially her mouth that honestly makes me wonder if they used CGI to make her mouth open even wider. And it’s always nice to see Jennifer Ehle, in part because it’s nice to be reminded that her parents are John Ehle and Rosemary Harris. But also because I always think of her as the lady who cured the pandemic in Contagion, and after all this time it’s important to remember that there are real people just as great as that one fictional character.