Around halfway through “Saint Maud,” writer-director Rose Glass constructs a cinematic wince moment for the ages, involving nails, bare feet and a young woman with a Christ complex far too big for her own snappable body. “Never waste your pain,” she says, and this short, sharp needle-jab of a horror parable from bleakest Britain takes the same advice. Glass is sparing with her shocks, but knows how to make them count, like sudden voltage surges in the fritzed, volatile machinery of her narrative, each one leaving the protagonist a little more anxiously damaged than before. A meek, devoutly Christian palliative nurse, with an open wound of a past and what she believes is a higher calling for the future, Maud is like Carrie White and her mother Margaret rolled into one unholy holy terror; as played with brilliant, blood-freezing intensity by Morfydd Clark, she’s a genre anti-heroine to cherish, protect and recoil from, sometimes all at once.
What genre that is, exactly, is up for discussion. “Saint Maud” is certainly enough of a horror film to make sense of its premiere placement in Toronto’s Midnight Madness program, where it’ll set some faint hearts into momentary arrest, though it’s not itself particularly mad. Rather, Glass has fashioned a sober, viciously disciplined film about a particular madness — or extreme religious fervor, if you want to be polite about it — that cuts to the core of fanaticism and its dangers, while taking pains to place its audience inside the believer’s head. Skirting easy cynicism to view fire, brimstone and occasional grace through Maud’s awestruck eyes, this is finally as much a sympathetic character study, a mental heath mind-map, as it is any kind of chiller. Whatever the case, it’s one hell of a debut for Rose Glass, who arrives to features fully formed, as elegantly poised between hardness and delicacy as her name. Arthouse and genre-inclined distributors can, and should, fight it out.
In its most piercing earthbound moments, “Saint Maud” even evokes the impressionistic human poetry of another shattered-woman study, Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar,” and not just because Clark has some of the young Samantha Morton’s moony, haunted ingenuousness. A memorable supporting presence in Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship” and TV’s “Patrick Melrose,” the Welsh thesp tears into her first leading vehicle like, well, a woman possessed — only in the quietest, most disquieting way. Pert and shy, looking constantly like she wants to crawl out of her own beigely clothed skin, she turns up at the doorstep of unrepentant heathen and hedonist Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle) like Mary Poppins as imagined by Robert Bresson, determined to bring her own brand of austere, God-bothering goodness to a household that — with the help of Ben Fordesman’s brooding, lights-down-low lensing and Paulina Rzeszowska’s tangibly seamy production design — appears to have been painted in claret and blood.
Amanda is a once-celebrated dancer and choreographer, now resigned by illness and disability to a dependent existence in a dingy English seaside town. A superb, biting Ehle plays her with the regal acidity of a former queen bee now mordantly amused by her own downfall. Employed as her private nurse, Maud arrives convinced she can lead her depressed, hard-drinking, lesbian patient to the light in all senses; Amanda, for her part, is equally determined to loosen up her strange, severe but sweetly dedicated carer. Maud, it turns out, has more of a shell to crack, having been traumatized by an incident alluded to in the film’s dripping, menacing, blue-filtered prologue.
Gradually, we learn that her rigorous religious conversion is a recent one, and that Maud is an adopted name: Still, in this small, sad community of low-level gambling and high-level boozing, remnants of an unwanted former life surface more easily and frequently than she’d like. Whatever the lie is, it’s a strenuous one to live, and as she gives in to dissociation, Maud’s beatific exterior comes off in partial layers, as if by toxic paint stripper. Her ideological clashes with Amanda turn less good-natured and more violently zealous; to herself, she explains her temperamental changes as signs of a transformative reckoning to come. In the course of just 84 minutes, Glass and editor Mark Towns artfully maintain a two-way view of their protagonist’s breakdown, toggling Maud’s distorted first-person perspective on herself and her out-of-body reality — a balancing act that teases out the extent of her delusions until one truly breathtaking split-second cut snaps the world into focus.
“You must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen,” Amanda tells Maud in a tone of both kindness and derision, and not a lot of self-awareness. For Maud, her faith is richer company than her employer’s coterie of fairweather friends and lovers, however unreliable a presence others deem God to be. As daring and testing an examination of the comforts and limits of religion as any we’ve seen recently, “Saint Maud” is no less thoughtful or compassionate for being dressed up — very stylishly, let it be said — in the trappings of horror. Simultaneously skeptical and inquisitive, Glass’s formidable debut is a film that, so to speak, suspends its own disbelief: It’s not God-fearing, but its unnerving anatomy of a follower does consider whether, why and how God should be someone to fear in the first place.