St Maud is a disturbing first feature by writer/director Rose Glass. In an effort that is nuanced, and intelligent Glass delivers a horror film that is both unsettlingly original yet also harkens to aesthetic tropes of abjection, possession, and beatification present in films such as Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981).
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a young Welsh nurse who slides into hyper-religious delusional behaviour after an unspecified event shown in flashbacks causes her to lose her place at the local major hospital of a seaside community (unnamed but recognisable as Scarborough in North Yorkshire) in Britain. A chance encounter with her previous colleague Joy (Lily Knight) shows that Maud whose real name is Kate was once a feckless young woman — drinking and carousing with unknown men in an attempt to ward off some unknown source of trauma.
Maud devotes her life to God and takes work in private palliative care. From the opening scenes where she earnestly prays over a cheap tin of bubbling bloodlike tomato soup, to her feverish devotion that has her practicing forms of increasingly extreme penitence and self-flagellation — including at once stage kneeling on what appear to be anti-anxiety and psychiatric medications, recreating stigmata type wounds, and walking on nails.
Pursuing redemption through seeking to comfort souls close to death. She believes that God has given her the key to not only provide succour to the dying, but the opportunity to save their immortal souls by bringing them to the Lord.
Maud is employed to nurse a world-renowned modern dance diva named Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle) who lives in a remote decadent Art Deco mansion across the bay. Amanda has terminal cancer and is living each day as if it were her last, which according to Maud’s almost glee filled assessment in her discussions with God, will be soon. Maud sees Amanda as God’s gift to her; a callow and selfish soul that only she can convert to the light and everlasting life in the arms of God.
The relationship between Maud and Amanda becomes a central point in which the narrative is weighted. Amanda toys with Maud. She simultaneously encourages Maud’s piety by calling her “my little saviour” yet deliberately mocks her efforts to convert her. A tension arises between the women which is rooted in a twinning of their bodies in a manner in which both women combine aspects of the divine and the abject. Amanda’s body was once a work of pure art, now riddled with cancer. Maud’s body is a canvas upon which she performs horrific punishments so she may gain access to Sainthood.
Amanda’s house is filled with trophies of her past glories. Posters show her body in the same kind of contorted poses Maud’s is in whilst in religious ecstasy. Both bodies enter the realm of the hysteric pose. Photographs of hysterics under the care of Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the late 1880s show poses that are similar to those Amanda performs as a dancer and Maud performs during her delusions. Charcot defined a style of hysteria for patients that he considered to be sane known as ‘hystero-epilepsy.’ Although Glass makes the audience aware that Maud has increasingly tenuous grasp on reality at times her ecstatic moments mimic what could be intense epileptic fits. We are never quite sure at what point Maud’s delusions are purely mental or also informed by some physical malaise.
When Maud meets Carol (Lily Frazer) Amanda’s reckless escort lover the jealousy and possessiveness Maud feels for Amanda goes beyond the spiritual and into the corporeal. The relationship between patient and carer begins to have a distinctly psychosexual tone. Seeking to control Carol’s access to, and influence over, Amanda, Maud demands that she immediately stops seeing her.
Amanda indulges Maud even gifting her with a book of visionary Romantic era painter and poet William Blake’s images; perfect fodder for Maud’s zealotry. However, when Amanda becomes aware that Maud’s prudishness is threatening to curtail her drug and alcohol fueled activities, she plans a cruel revenge and humiliates then terminates Maud from her employment.
After failing in her mission to save Amanda’s soul a despondent Maud reverts to being Kate. She finds herself drunk and picking up random men in a seedy pub where she performs sex acts with two men in an act of self-abandon and self-punishment that ends up in her rape.
Because Glass’ thesis revolves around Maud’s obsessive nature it isn’t long until she decides that the job termination is a test of her faith and redoubles her devotion to God. Her visions become more intense and spurred by the imagery of Blake she pores over from the book gifted her by Amanda. Maud imagines herself a winged creature, an avenging angel, and for the first time she hears God’s voice instructing her in a bizarre soundscape that combines the Welsh language and possibly Latin and Aramaic.
The monstrosity of St Maud isn’t the inevitable and horrific conclusion that leaves no one free from the wreak of destruction that is Maud’s devotion. Rather it is the notion that somehow a vulnerable woman has been left to fester and become so ill and delusional without any support. Kate’s metamorphosis into St Maud would not have been immediate, but rather incremental as her delusions and spiritual torment became a preferable reality to whatever she faced in her past.
Rose Glass has created an assured first feature that leaves many questions unanswered. The mystery of St Maud is never solved. Is she physically sick? Is she mad? Is she a victim of intense PTSD? How did she end up so isolated? What we do know is that the elemental nature of Maud’s delusions are hallucinatory in the most visceral way, engaging both the visual and auditory senses of characters and the audience. Glass has crafted an uncanny and disturbing beast. St Maud will haunt you long after her flames have extinguished.
Director: Rose Glass
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight
Writer: Rose Glass