by Greg Carlson
16 May 2021
Another movie long-delayed by the pandemic, “Saint Maud” can finally be viewed on Amazon Prime and several other online outlets (the world premiere took place a lifetime ago at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival).
Writer-director Rose Glass makes a convincing feature debut with an unsettling study of a personal carer who obsessively ministers -- in every sense of the word -- to a professional dancer ravaged by cancer. The subject matter is pitch black, but Glass is smart enough not to take herself too seriously. “Saint Maud” is as funny as it is grim.
“Saint Maud” has been favorably compared to an impressive roster of memorable films both old and new, including “Carrie,” “Under the Skin,” “The Witch,” “Persona,” “Taxi Driver,” and “The Exorcist.” Parallels to these movies and several others are most certainly present, even if “Saint Maud” is not nearly as strong or as brilliant as its direct and indirect inspirations.
As Katie/Maud, Morfydd Clark immediately conveys a blend of self-disciplined piety and roiling inner conflict that links her to characters as far apart as Carrie White and Travis Bickle. Her willingness to veer from the truth -- like the name change to distance herself from a recent work-related catastrophe -- signals deeper trouble.
Glass asks the audience to wonder about the details that derailed Maud’s previous job and brought her so quickly to an intense devotion to Roman Catholicism. The young woman bonds with new patient Amanda Kohl, played by the reliably great Jennifer Ehle, and the change in venue from institution to private home intensifies the anxiousness and foreboding.
Glass increasingly toys with the line separating the real from the supernatural, and when we see or hear things -- does that creepy voice that speaks to Maud in Welsh come from God or the Devil? -- we still find room to empathize with our lonely and desperate protagonist.
Sure, “Saint Maud” can be called a horror film, but it is equally a psychological drama that gets a lot of mileage from a tried and true trope: the shifting power dynamics in a superior/subordinate relationship. Maud is Amanda’s nurse and also Amanda’s employee. And yet, Amanda’s diminished physical condition means that Maud can wield control in many situations.
Glass manipulates the audience by withholding the concrete and emphasizing the abstract. To what extent does Maud dream about the kind of life Amanda once enjoyed as a vibrant performing artist? Are Maud’s acts of self-flagellation for penitence or sexual gratification?
Yet another link to modern pop culture is the presence of William Blake, and particularly Blake’s image “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.” Like Francis Dolarhyde in the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” (and its cinematic adaptations), Maud experiences a kind of inspirational, transcendent ecstasy upon encountering Blake’s hallucinatory interpretation of events described in the Book of Revelation.
The many contrasts probed in “Saint Maud” -- good and evil, belief and atheism, celibacy and liberation -- are starkly compared and contrasted in the differences between Maud and Amanda. Each woman imagines she might be able to build a persuasive argument. Each woman underestimates the other.
Greg Carlson is a professor in the Communication Studies and Theatre Art department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., where he currently serves as the director of the multimedia journalism and film studies programs.
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