Plenty of great films wait until their final act or final scene to really show their hand and stun the audience – think of, say, the way Beau Travail’s last dance so beautifully completes its story, or the ‘holy shit’ thrill of The Bourne Supremacy’s finale – but not many have the chutzpah to wait until the literal final second to do so. Not only does Rose Glass’s Saint Maud have this confidence, it also has the sheer skill to pull this audacious coup off, the kind of achievement that would be a gold star on any director’s CV, let alone one who chose to cap off their *first film* this way.
Glass’s debut is an astoundingly assured slice of religious terror, bringing to mind the spectacular recent arrivals of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, all the while resolutely walking its own path. She explores faith, isolation, and madness through the eyes of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a devout live-in palliative care nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her latest charge, terminally ill former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Maud claims to receive visits from God, visits which cause her a sort of ecstatic seizure, but Glass mostly leaves it ambiguous as to whether they are genuine divine intervention.
Through bits and pieces of exposition, it becomes clear that Maud has put up a façade of innocence to distract from a traumatic past, and Clark is phenomenal in conveying the repressed anger and pain that plagues Maud on a daily basis. Saint Maud is as much a breakout film for Clark as it is for Glass, and the pair make for perfect partners, working in tandem to create an oppressive, deeply unsettling atmosphere that never really lets up. It’s an incredibly difficult performance, both in terms of the slow reveal of Maud’s true nature and in the physical contortions required for the communions with God, but Clark steps up to the task magnificently.
Things don’t quite go ‘full horror’ until the climax, but that is not to say there is any comfort to be found before that. Amanda’s grand old house creaks and flickers in a myriad of spooky ways, and the Scarborough seafront is brilliantly bleak. A trip to the pub is shot through with grotesquery and danger, while Maud’s miserable little flat always seems filthy, no matter how many times she diligently cleans it. Loneliness permeates every frame of Saint Maud, further adding to the hallucinatory, desperate atmosphere and keeping its characters sympathetic even as they descend into wild-eyed mania.
There are also some wince-inducing moments of self-flagellation, implying absurd amounts of pain and suffering without getting too gory, though this restraint is tossed into the wind as the ending approaches. Glass goes full-bore into the craziness, drawing on William Blake’s iconic imagery to put heaven and hell on earth. Sometimes, her ambitions exceed her budget, but it’s still thrilling to see such ambition coming from a British debut, and then that final shot puts a majestic, gruesome bow on the whole affair. Glass is a formidable new talent.