A24‘s religious horror, Saint Maud, led me into temptation from the second I heard about it. All I had actually heard was that in it, God spoke Welsh. As a Swansea girl, I was intrigued; why Welsh? I didn’t want to know anything else at all about the film, so I avoided the trailer and all reviews; I am glad I did, as the tension in Saint Maud needs to creep up on you, it needs almost to suffocate you, and that can only happen when you have no clue what is coming next.
Rose Glass’ first feature-length film stars Swedish-born Welsh actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud, a small and unassuming nurse who has recently converted to Roman Catholicism. Exceptionally devout, she believes humankind is immoral, lustful, and evil, but that soon a true messiah will come and save humanity — that saviour just might be her. But she hasn’t always felt this way.
Over the course of the film, we learn Maud had a breakdown after a tragic accident in the hospital she used to work. A male patient she was treating, who had recently undergone heart surgery, went into cardiac arrest. Maud began the process of chest compression to kickstart his heart, but instead of saving him, she took his life gruesomely when his chest cavity collapsed, and her hands plunged into his body.
What happens to a fundamentally good person when they take a life? It is easy for me to visualise that this event could cause PTSD — one of my greatest fears is hitting someone with my car. You’d tell yourself that you are not cut out for the job, that you were a danger to people. To wield that type of power, the ability to keep someone alive or kill them in a matter of seconds, such a fine line between life and death in your hands, is a heavy burden to carry. It would be normal to seek a deeper understanding of why this happened to you. To make sense of those tragic moments, sometimes the human mind travels deeper than it should for the answers. Guilt can trap us into believing that this was not just an accident but a sin that requires repentance, or maybe an act of God who has a plan for you. Turning to faith to prove your true goodness in the face of evil and save your soul is all too familiar when it comes to religion.
Is religious extremism a form of mental illness? From the perspective of the fanatic, his/her devotion is often not only logical and justified, but he/she is compelled to serve. The distinction between what an extremist believes and what other people believe is one of the main themes examined in Saint Maud.
Maud, of course, has no idea that she may be mentally ill. She really believes God is in communication with her. Perhaps he is. She can hear his voice, and He explicitly tells her that He has very special plans for her in the near future; sometimes, he touches her and a feeling of ecstasy floods through her body. Maud does have a little bit of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in her, and there’s nothing more disturbing than harmful behaviour carried out by those believing they are doing good. Especially when convinced it’s what the Lord wants them to do.
The beauty of Saint Maud is that it can be read in different ways — as an analysis of the interaction between faith and self; as a lament for the life of a young woman suffering a mental breakdown; as a drama about loneliness; as a story of obsession or possession; as a tragedy about the weakness and frailty of the human body. As the story is told mostly from Maud’s perception, it leaves room for the possibility that her fanaticism isn’t a mental illness at all and that God really is communicating with her.
On the flip side, Maud may be mentally ill, but even if that is the case, then surely she deserves mercy and compassion, so wholly has her mind bent reality to support her delusion. This superbly handled ambiguity is the film’s ace card. Unsettling, frightening, challenging, erratic, moving, and sometimes very funny, this is a film that forms a path entirely of its own and is as dramatic and daring a directorial debut you’re ever likely to watch.
In a thoroughly bleak English seaside town, Maud works as a private palliative care nurse. The story begins as she arrives for her first shift with her new patient, Amanda Köhl (the unfailingly brilliant Jennifer Ehle), a once world-famous American dancer and choreographer who has end-stage spinal lymphoma. Amanda now uses a wheelchair and receives care requiring a great deal of intimacy, including bathing, physical therapy and massage.
In a strange paradox for a horror-thriller, Saint Maud hits all the right Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response triggers for me. The treatment Maud gives to Amanda, her thoroughness and personal attention given in silence; only the sound of material crinkling or being smoothed down; the tip-taps of medical equipment being used, Maud’s soft Welsh lilt, it’s so soothing to watch and listen to. Amanda feels it too. In these moments of dutiful care, Maud truly is saint-like.
Amanda and Maud get on well. Maud admires Amanda’s strength of character and lust for life, while Amanda wants to help Maud relax and live her life a little. However, there are certain aspects of Amanda’s life of which Maud disapproves. Most notably, the regular visits from Carol (Lily Frazer), Amanda’s lover, with whom she has much fun drinking and doing God knows what else behind closed doors.
It’s not the fact that Amanda is gay or bisexual; Maud seems jealous of the attention Amanda gives Carol; there is a feeling that she would like to be in her place. Maud believes she might be able to save Amanda’s soul if Carol didn’t lead her astray. When Amanda holds a party and mocks Maud in front of her guests, Maud strikes Amanda across the face. Fired from her job, Maud’s dark secret threatens to resurface, and so she decides to prove to Amanda, God, and the whole world just how far humankind has fallen and how sanctified she is.
In her conversations with God, Maud talks about how important her work is, as it enables her to “save souls,” and she attributes her recent conversion to Catholicism to reversing the downward spiral of her life. She believes that suffering is the only way to salvation and to prove devotion to God. She cheerfully tells a beggar, “never waste your pain.” Later she knocks nails into her shoes so that she must tread through the pain always.
Likewise, Maud tolerates the little digs Amanda gives her about her life and loneliness, but when Amanda turns her sarcastic wit to Catholicism, Maud cannot let it go without a fight. Her love/hate relationship with Amanda forms much of the film’s narrative structure, with neither woman allowed to occupy the moral high ground. Amanda is bored to death of her illness, her isolation and her inability to leave the house. So she seizes on this odd, super-serious young woman who has come to care for her. Amanda is no more a villain than Maud, but she does regard Maud as a toy. She doesn’t wish to hurt Maud; she just wants to entertain herself. Together they form a frighteningly intense double act, and their delicate relationship spirals out of control to a harrowing and heartbreaking effect.
Pivotal to the aesthetic is how the perspective is handled; most (although, crucially, not all) of the film is told from Maud’s point of view, so we experience her visions, not as an impartial third-party would, but as she does. So, when she sees a vortex spontaneously appear in a glass of lager, we see the same occurrence; there’s no cutaway to show us Maud staring at a still glass of beer. When a towel placed near a crucifix falls to the ground for no apparent reason, we witness it as she does, and there’s nothing to suggest why it may have fallen. When God talks to her (in Welsh), we hear His voice as she does, and there is no occasion where we catch Maud answering a voice we cannot hear.
But what should we make of the scenes not shown from Maud’s perspective? There are several shots of Maud in windows or with lights in the background that create a halo effect around her. Another sequence shows her walking on the beach with a thin layer of water covering the sand, framed in such a way it looks like she’s walking on water. One memorable scene near the end of the film seems to suggest that Maud was correct about Amanda; a demon has possessed her, which is especially significant in the formation of a subjective point of view—what we’re seeing must be a symptom of Maud’s psychosis. Yet, the film has given us reason to doubt that. Could Maud really be experiencing all of this? Is this scene confirmation that her mind has snapped for good, or is it proof she was completely sane the whole time? Constructing a scene built on two opposing interpretations can’t be easy, yet it is done so smoothly, you won’t even realise the marked polarity until it’s all over.
Logic tells me that Maud was going through psychosis, brought on either by PTSD or schizophrenia, which would explain the voices, hallucinations and delusions of grandeur. While that is obvious to the scientifically minded, as a logical spiritualist (yes, we do exist), I still needed something to prove it. God speaking in Welsh is what convinced me.
What does your inner monologue sound like? For me, my inner talk sounds like me; it’s my voice, my accent and my tone. Some people don’t hear a voice at all but visualise pictures; some simply have feelings without words to accompany them or a combination of all those things at different times. In whatever way we experience our self-talk, we know it is ourselves talking. Our inner monologue skims through scenarios; it gives us pep talks, sets off those gut feelings, and prepares us for future events.
At times of anxiety, depression or stress, our inner voices may turn on us as we tell ourselves we are worthless, that we cannot do things properly, that we will fail, that nobody loves us, that the world would be better off without us, and so on. Yet, we know that it is still us talking. If we experience a psychotic breakdown, our inner voice may become something else entirely. Someone we cannot identify with — the voice of someone else.
It is common for people to blame their horrific crimes on voices telling them to do it. Yet these voices are just us, even if they feel like a stranger. We all do it to a far lesser degree—like that time you decided to have one more beer and still drove home, even though you were over the limit, that time you flirted with that person even though are married (and you probably would have gone further if they’d been interested). We all have a devil and an angel sitting on our shoulders, and we decide whose advice to take depending on our mood, emotions, intoxication levels, and outside influences.
It must be terrifying not to recognise your inner voice as your own. It may have a different accent, pitch or tone. It may just not feel like you, and it is this disassociation that sows the seed that whoever you are communicating with must be otherworldly. And because in Western countries we are brought up learning about heaven and hell, good and evil, it is understandable that God and the Devil or angels and demons are those we believe to be communicating with us.
Having broken one of the Ten Commandments when she accidentally killed her patient, Maud turned to God in an attempt to save her soul. So traumatised, she began to believe that what she had done was actually a good thing, that she was not only rescuing herself but the souls of those around her who were nearing death. Spurred on by her inner God, she loyally had faith in herself. Her inner God spoke Welsh because she spoke Welsh. Maud’s first language was probably Welsh, so that is what her inner monologue sounded like as it was more natural to her, perhaps before her mental break too.
Sadly, this means Maud’s mental illness led her to viciously murder Amanda as she lay in her bed. We can perhaps take some solace in the fact that Maud was so removed from reality that she believed she had done God’s bidding and that this act and her subsequent self-sacrifice was precisely what she wanted.
We may know that Maud dowsed herself with petrol and set herself on fire on the beach in front of horrified onlookers, but she didn’t know that no one else could see her halo. Right up to the very end she had faith in herself, in her God, in her inner monologue, and perhaps that’s all that matters. Hopefully, her mind continued believing in her final moments as she burned alive. Hopefully, she still felt her angel wings.
Saint Maud is a brilliant horror/thriller/drama that will keep you ruminating long after you’ve left the cinema. If this is just a taste of what Rose Glass has to bring to the psychological horror table, then we are in for a treat. There isn’t a second of the film that isn’t perfectly placed, edited scrupulously by Mark Towns. Adam Janota Bzowski’s extraordinary musical score seems to circumvent your ears and penetrate straight to your soul, creating an atmosphere hazy with sexual intrigue and dank with skin-crawling menace, adding to the intensity of scenes. Cinematographer, Ben Fordesman, brought the bleak exteriors and oppressive interiors to life; the old house on the hill felt suffocating despite its majesty, and the film captures that hollow, haunted feeling you get ambling through a seaside town out of season.
A24 keep on doing what they do best: producing some of the most enrapturing horror films of the tens and twenties. With Hereditary, Midsommar and now Saint Maud under their belt, I am so glad to be living through this.