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Non-Review Review: Saint Maud

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

“Pain is precious,” intones the title character towards the third act of Saint Maud. “You shouldn’t waste it.”

Rose Glass’ debut feature is a delightfully weird genre hybrid, existing at some strange intersection of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Exorcist that just happens to unfold in Scarborough. It is hard to summarise exactly what Saint Maud is, in terms of genre. At times, it plays like that most maligned of genres, the “elevated horror” that favours slow-mounted dread over cheap thrills. At other points, it is an intensely intimate psychological thriller and character study. Occasionally, it pivots sharply into surreal black comedy. It is never one or the other, and the film’s deft balance is a credit to Glass as writer and director.

Still, at its core, Saint Maud is ultimately a tale of repression and rapture, religious devotion wrestling with carnal desire. It is a film in which the contortions of the flesh associated with divine position are juxtaposed with the use of the body as an instrument by dancers. Over the course of Saint Maud, bodies writhe in pleasure that emanates from sources both spiritual and physical. Indeed, the spiritual and physical often collapse into one another over the course of the film, inviting the audience to try to draw a clean line of separation between two ideas that are so closely intertwined.

Saint Maud is an unsettling, warped and clever little film that is worth seeking out. It is also worth seeing blind, in so much as that might be possible.

The basic plot of Saint Maud focuses on a young carer who has taken the name Maud after some hazily-defined unpleasantness in her recent past. Maud has been reborn, in a literal and figurative sense. She has found faith. She has opened a dialogue with God. Maud is largely demur and passive within the events of the film, but Saint Maud repeatedly welcomes the audiences into her head through her prayers to a higher authority. She appeals to this force for guidance and direction, to help her find some sense of larger purpose in the world.

That purpose seems to present itself when Maud is assigned to work with Amanda Kohl. Amanda is a former dancer who is suffering from terminal spinal lymphoma. Her home is decorated with monuments to a dazzling career; books that she has written on the art form, posters celebrating breakout performances, wigs and other paraphernalia. However, Amanda has found herself alone at the end of it all. Her body has turned against her. It now contorts and bends in ways that betray her, rather than express her.

Maud finds herself immediately drawn to Amanda, even if she struggles to articulate why this is. (She opines that she has always found celebrities to be “self-involved.”) Maud becomes convinced that she might find redemption if she can save Amanda’s soul, only to find herself embroiled in a fraught tug of war with her patient that escalates dramatically and quickly. It is a surprisingly simple set-up, but more efficient for that simplicity. Glass skillfully builds mood and character over the film’s relatively slight eighty minute run-time, sketching a surprisingly detailed portrait of her two central characters.

Saint Maud leans heavily on its central performance. After all, the film essentially lives or dies based on how engaging and convincing the audience finds the title character to be. Morfydd Clark is superb in the role, offering a performance that is pitched perfectly to the movie around it. Clark is able to pivot as sharply as the script demands, able to portray acerbic wit, cold dispassion, vulnerability insecurity and quiet resolve with remarkable ease. Glass trusts Clark to carry a lot of the weight of the film, often focusing the camera on Clark’s face as she processes her situation.

Saint Maud strikes a very fine balance, particularly with its handling of Maud’s religious belief and back story. Like a lot of contemporary horror cinema, Glass adopts a rather minimalist and restrained approach, allowing Saint Maud to slowly but steadily ratchet up the discomfort and horror. Saint Maud taps into the tendency in modern horror to downplay weirdness and discomfort to make it all the more acute; the casualness with which Maud constructs (and employs) improvised methods of self-flagellation somehow renders the whole process more disturbing rather than less so.

It’s an approach that requires considerable skill and care, and an impeccable command of tone. Saint Maud is always perfectly balanced, even as its protagonist becomes more and more unhinged. Glass commits, without hesitation or compromise, to Maud’s slipping grip on sanity. She also manages to provide the audience with just enough insight and back story to render the narrative comprehensible to an observer outside of Maud’s rapturous dialogue with the divine. It is a cliché to argue that less is often scarier than more. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that the key is striking the right balance at “just enough.”

Saint Maud is horrifyingly good and unsettlingly compelling.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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