Saint Maud (2020), Isolation, Religion and Sexuality at the Sea-Side

Name a better combination than Britain and Horror….that’s right you can’t. Now I’m willing to admit that this statement carries a fair amount of bias, being a British Horror fan myself, but while many tote Japan, Italy, or America as the paragons of the genre, there’s an undeniable charm and legacy that Britain has when it comes to horror. From The Wickerman to The Devils, Britain boasts a wide range of classics and with new up-and-coming talent like Ben Wheatley, the legacy of British horror remains alive and well. So when I first saw the trailer for Saint Maud, it looked like it was living up to all the hype I’d heard coming out of TIFF. But, one thing I would personally note, is that the trailer felt like it was selling a very different experience than the film turned out to be. While this isn’t an issue for me personally as I ended up loving what it turned out to be, I can easily see many people feeling like they were sold short. 

The film follows Maud, a recently converted Catholic nurse, who after breaking down after a traumatic event at the hospital she worked at, takes up a job as a private nurse for a former dancer. I mention the traumatic event because it is essential to understanding Maud’s character but writer/director Rose Glass, purposefully sprinkles ambiguous and disorientating flashbacks to the event, including opening the film with it, to make you slowly but surely understand what happened. But while I say this event is key to understanding Maud’s character, the same could be said about many different elements of the film, from Maud’s choice of Saint, to the sharp contrast in tone and aesthetic that each third of the film has. 

One of the big themes of the film, and one that I don’t think many films have dealt with in such an explicit way, is Maud’s mental health and her religious psychosis. While it’s never said plainly what type of mental illness Maud is experiencing, it seems to be some form of schizophrenia that causes Maud to experience religious delusions and hallucinations. Now I could be wrong, but I feel like while many horror films incorporate religious psychosis or hallucinations, I’ve never heard of a film that tackles it so head on as Saint Maud. The film is very rooted in Maud’s worldview, we see the instances of “possession” in the same way that she does, as if they’re actually happening, but as the audience we’re also privy to the fact that it doesn’t quite seem right. On a side note, this concept leads to what is possibly my favourite final shot of the year (it’s only other competition currently is Portrait of a Lady on Fire). 

It’s also Maud’s mental illness that serves as the catalyst for the horror, there is no “big evil” or constant fear of a thing that creates the tension and suspense, this comes from watching Maud succumb to the extremes of self-harm, self-flagellation, and self-hatred during and after her work with Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda. The way the world around Maud distorts, creates this horrific sense of constant terror and discomfort for the audience, but this isn’t to say that the special effects aren’t superb. While the film could easily rest on its laurels in how it crafts such a tense and horrific atmosphere, it goes a step further through its gruesome body horror effects. This is where I think the trailer may have mis-sold some people as it gave the impression, at least to me, that the body horror was going to be frequent but it’s actually used sparingly, to great avail in my opinion. By spreading them throughout the film you get these jarringly tonal shifts of intense body horror that only further disorientate the audience as Maud’s lucidity degrades.

While I can’t praise Rose Glass’s efforts enough, the fair share of credit needs to be given to the other crew members that pulled their weight. For example Ben Fordesman does a brilliant job with the cinematography; the way the scenes are framed and shot do a great deal to add to the ambience of the scenes. Fordesman’s use of warm and dark lights depending on the scene is really remarkable, although this should be no surprise as he previously did a fantastic job on some of the best looking episodes of The End of the F***ing World, and I think he should definitely be someone the industry keeps an eye on in the coming future. I also think Mark Towns does a really great job with the editing, and I already mentioned that the special effects work is really superb. The production design is also brilliant, with both the two main locations evoking their own gothic feel in their own right.

For me, Saint Maud is just another example of excellence in British Horror. Rose Glass interweaves these complex ideas of religion, mental health, femininity and sexuality seamlessly with a constant state of dread and fear to create a really interesting and compelling character study. Alongside the themes I thought there was some really good social commentary on the stigma surrounding mental illness. While there are a lot of fresh voices in horror at the moment and a lot of attention on the genre, Rose Glass has managed to carve out her own place amongst her contemporaries and with such promise and skill already on show with Saint Maud I am eager to follow her career keenly. 

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