By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle and Lily Frazer
Written and directed by Rose Glass
Too often (especially in recent years), when a horror film opens with a flash-forward to the midst or aftermath of its terrible events, it only drains the tension by revealing too much in advance. SAINT MAUD is a rare case in which it works: writer/director Rose Glass begins by clearly jumping ahead in her story, and it’s equally clear something awful has happened, though it’s hard to tell exactly what. The scene is rife with gloopy liquid visuals and audio suggesting that what’s to follow will be visceral body horror, yet SAINT MAUD (in select theaters today and streaming exclusively via Epix beginning February 12) instead goes much more into psychological disturbance.
Indeed, that opener works to get us nervous about where the film’s scenario will lead, since beyond a couple of brief moments, the first half is less a genre exercise than a drama about faith, religious devotion and its clash with cynicism. Morfydd Clark, who previously had roles in CRAWL and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, gives a quietly fascinating performance as Maud, a young former nurse who arrives to serve as a caregiver for former ballet dancer/choreographer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), now wheelchair-bound due to a spinal malady. Maud’s predecessor describes Amanda to her with an obscene term that sets the unsentimental tone, though from the beginning, Ehle makes Amanda more than the sum of her sarcastic, cynical attitude. She demonstrates vulnerability around Maud, who seems genuinely caring and committed to helping Amanda, though her devotion to her job is second to her devotion to God.
Maud prays to her Lord in voiceover, describing the niceties of her day and hoping He will reveal His plans for her life. While her fervor is honest, she is isolated–or has isolated herself–from society, and you also get the feeling she speaks to God because she needs someone to talk to. He doesn’t speak back, at least with a voice; Maud can feel God rather than hear him, and sometimes that feeling is overwhelming, with Clark fully conveying the sense of a young woman in rapture. She and Ehle also establish an intimate dynamic between Maud and Amanda, as Amanda reveals her intimations of mortality while Maud tries to comfort her.
As SAINT MAUD goes on, however, tensions begin to creep in, including a confrontation between Maud and Amanda’s pushy, profane girlfriend Carol (Lily Frazer). Then a chance encounter with one of her former co-workers gives the first indications that Maud has a past she’d rather not deal with. With Adam Janota Bzowski’s score ominously groaning and clanking in the background, Glass builds a simmering sense of unpleasantries to come, and SAINT MAUD seems to be heading toward claustrophobic hothouse territory. She then takes the story in a different direction around the halfway point, leaving you tantalized about what’s coming next, as SAINT MAUD builds toward a conclusion that’s as inevitable as it is shocking.
The final 10 minutes contain moments of both beauty and stark terror, the latter always remaining of a piece with Glass’ humanistic approach. She and Clark very effectively present, visually and in performance, the fracturing of a young woman’s psyche, supported by craft contributions from Ben Fordesman’s moody cinematography to Tina Kalivas’ impeccable costuming. Maud makes her own alteration to a part of that ensemble that leads to one of the most painful parts of SAINT MAUD, a movie that always encourages our sympathy for its protagonist even as her spirituality leads to suffering.