Content warning: self-harm.
‘I sought pleasure and found pain.’
So reads an inscription accompanying William Blake’s etching of a naked creature consumed by flames, their vivid facial expression conveying a confronting ambiguity: are they writhing in agony, or in ecstasy?
For Maud (Morfydd Clark), the sweetly sinister protagonist of Saint Maud, Blake’s macabre illustrations are just as instructive as her Roman Catholic beliefs. She pores over a weighty tome of his work in her spare time, typically before harming herself – an act of devotion to her sadistic God, wherein she derives a twisted satisfaction. Occasionally, she tears illustrations out to embellish her personal shrine. William and Maud are kindred spirits after all, disillusioned with reality and withdrawn into the supernatural realm, all the while being sustained by extraordinary religious visions.
The ambiguous divide between the psychological and the metaphysical has become the thematic cornerstone of A24’s horror selection, from The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017) to The Lighthouse (2019), and Saint Maud fits perhaps too neatly within this pre-established brand. But while the film struggles to find a fresh spin on these well-worn ideas, it’s nevertheless an unflinching debut from writer and director Rose Glass, who proves adroit at injecting filth with flair.
The film opens with Maud settling into a palliative care job at the home of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a famous dancer turned bitter recluse beset by a debilitating illness (and an unmistakeable analogue to Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond). Caring for Amanda is something of a new start for the nurse, who is revealed to have previously suffered a mysterious traumatic incident at her former workplace – an event which also precipitated her foray into religious extremity. Amanda, silkily portrayed by Ehle, finds pleasure in Maud’s frigid company, both as a companion and as a plaything. As an unashamed hedonist, she inevitably clashes with Maud’s distorted self-abnegation and militant faith; Amanda’s romantic interest in another woman, for example, draws almost virile disdain from her carer. It isn’t long before Maud embarks on a perilous new crusade: to save Amanda’s soul.
I was roughly a third of the way through the film before realising that I was not, in fact, watching a period piece. From its seedy seaside town to Amanda’s obstinately old-fashioned abode, Saint Maud captures a world in decay, embellished by Paulina Rzeszowska’s textured production design. Each frame is delectably caked with grime and grain. Yet it’s also a surprisingly colourful film, refusing to stick to the sort of muted, muddy palette which plagues films of similar subject matter. The film’s visual allure can also be attributed to cinematographer Ben Fordesman, whose unusually tenebrous compositions are a masterclass in suspenseful lighting.
While Saint Maud appears to promise an onslaught of terror and body horror, it reaches a peak of nastiness (revealed in the trailer, no less) roughly an hour into its 83 minute runtime, only to decrescendo into its predictable third act. Morfydd Clark’s performance is never less than magnetic however, delivering an increasingly febrile performance underscored by an unsettling naivete. While watching her relinquish her body to vicious paroxysms and erupting bodily fluids, it’s difficult not to recall Isabelle Adjani’s legendary turn in Possession (1981).
Maud’s guiding principle – that pain should never be wasted – is taken to harrowing extremes here, yet it’s a journey that strikes an oddly personal chord. It’s especially timely considering how trauma has become increasingly commodified, particularly in the online sphere, reinforcing the idea that pain must have utility. Maud’s perverted asceticism is rooted in a greater denial: a belief that everything she’s suffered thus far must be useful. That it must be some part of a pre-ordained plan. It’s unacceptable to even consider that her pain may have no redeeming qualities – and so she chooses to double down on her destructive faith, believing that further suffering will only reap greater rewards. It’s about as real as horror gets.
Saint Maud will be playing on 28 February and 4 March at the Lido Hawthorn and 1 March at Ritz Cinema as part of Fantastic Film Festival Australia.
Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.