Saint Maud announces Rose Glass as a strong new voice in cinema. Like Ari Aster's Hereditary, here is a film that knows exactly what it is doing for every single frame. It is a new masterpiece in religious horror, asking what does possession look like if not from demons but from the big man upstairs.
We are introduced to Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young, stern and softspoken caretaker as she is starting a new job taking care of a terminal cancer patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). At first, the days are routine. Maud cleans, cooks and builds a rapport with Amanda. Maud has spells that interrupt this routine from time to time. A kind of rapture takes hold of her and Maud trembles and breathes heavy and contorts her body in ways that seem unnatural. From Amanda's secular point of view, the fits would appear orgasmic. Amanda even joins in on one of the spells. The reality is that Maud feels these are visits from God.
The two women couldn't be more different. Amanda was a famous dancer who lives a bohemian lifestyle. She smokes like a chimney and frequently has lovers come by for visits. One lover, the flippant Carol (Lily Frazer), pushes Maud's buttons. Maud even asks her to never come back at one point. Maud is stiff and reserved, a ball of repression. We get glimpses of her memory of one deadly mistake that led her to her religious awakening. Glass gives us startling images to piece together what happened: a body in a hospital bed bloody, a chunk of hair soaked in blood, a cockroach crawling on the ceiling. We learn that Maud changed her name after this to refashion herself in the image of St Maud, who devoted her life to the sick.
Maud spends much of the film desperate to leave her past habits. Amanda brings them closer to Maud than she can handle. To remain pious and purge herself of these desires, Maud tortures herself. She kneels on broken peanut shells when she prays. She places thumbtacks in her shoes. When Amanda gifts her a book of William Blakes poetry, she is drawn to his belief that organized religion is a barrier to reaching God.
This signals a shift in Maud's trajectory. She asked God to reveal his plan for her and the book seems to provide her with it. She believes herself to be an evangelical and must become Amanda's savior. The slow burn that Glass brilliantly constructs here erupts in a finale for the ages. The final frames are truly shocking and horrifying but feel entirely earned.
The two lead performances are wonderful. Clark creates an interior world for Maud that the film only occasionally lets us see but her performance carries it to every frame. She never feels insane in a cheap way, rather devoted to her beliefs. This makes Maud a fascinating but chilling character. Ehle brings a wondrous depth to Amanda, capturing both her former glamour with the realities of dying.
Glass understands the power of well-crafted frames. She can make boiling soup feel sinister here. The colors shift from warm reds when Maud is taking care of Amanda to sickly greens when she is alone. There is a command over every element of each frame that is impressive for a debut film. This thoughtful direction elevates the film past any shocker into a genuine character study of two women. The ending delivers the horror that builds through every tense minute of the film but would be nothing if not for the excellent filmmaking before it.