Hello, everyone! I’m back with my second movie review in two days, and it’s yet another horror movie about Catholicism. I don’t know what makes that specific religion so frightening. Maybe it’s the part where you might spend all of eternity burning in Hell? Anyways, today I want to talk about Rose Glass’ debut film Saint Maud, a disturbing psychological body-horror about one woman’s religious obsession with her patient. This movie shook me to my core because it’s one of the only movies I’ve seen that directly links religious zealotry to untreated mental illness, a connection that has been historically glossed over under the guise of “saintliness.” How many historical tales are there of people who did frightening things to themselves, like self-induced starvation, self-flagellation, and martyrdom, and were later canonized by the Church? Saint Maud dissects this idea through a modern lens, and forces the viewer to reckon with our commonly held ideas about religious fervor and untreated mental illness.
Synopsis: After a traumatic experience with a patient at the local hospital, Maud quits nursing to work as a private carer, where she begins taking care of Amanda Köhl, a famous dancer dying of cancer. Reclusive and extremely religious, Maud initially disapproves of Amanda’s bacchanalian lifestyle, but after a shared religious experience, Maud realizes that God has chosen her to convert Amanda to Catholicism and save her soul before death.
My thoughts: Since this is an A24 movie, a lot of viewers have been comparing it to other psychological horror movies like The Witch, Midsommar, and Hereditary. While I do think that Saint Maud comes from the same school as these staples of modern horror, I think it’s a new entry into a different genre: female-driven psychological horror. Other movies in this genre include Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Julia Ducornau’s French film Raw, and Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are, all movies that focus on a woman’s psychological torment, and how that torment often expresses itself through self-harm.
From the beginning, Saint Maud makes the viewer uncomfortable. Audiences are used to male loners on camera; characters like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, The Joker’s Arthur Fleck, and The Master’s Freddie Quell have taught viewers to recognize the sight of men walking alone down dark streets, meditating on their inner existential crises. A female loner is a far rarer thing to see in film, and they’re usually written off as women who through their own faults are too ugly, too old, or too weird for men to like them. Maud is none of those things. She’s a young, conventionally attractive woman with a career. In another movie, she would be the quirky love interest. But in this movie, Maud’s quirks, like her mysterious stomach pain, constant inner dialogue with someone we can only assume is “God,” and obsession with religious sacrifice, serve as little red flags to the audience, informing us that there is far more to Maud than meets the eye.
Director Rose Glass isn’t interested in doling out any easy answers. Instead, she writes Maud as something of a cipher, a woman who is clearly suffering from something, but whose actions are ambiguous enough to leave the viewer wondering if Maud is acting out of religious fervor, mental illness, or something else entirely. Actress Morfydd Clark did a terrific job of playing Maud as a woman walking a delicate tightrope between noble purpose and complete catastrophe. She is convinced that there is a greater purpose on this Earth than simply caring for the dying, and when she meets Amanda Köhl, played by the always excellent Jennifer Ehle, Maud realizes that her purpose is to save Köhl from Hell. Whether Amanda, an artist who despite her terminal illness continues to smoke, drink, and party, wants to be saved is irrelevant to Maud. Driven only be the mysterious voice in her head, Maud is determined to save Amanda, no matter the personal cost.
Saint Maud is a movie interested only in the female psyche. Consequently, men are few and far between, showing up only to give a reason why Maud might be avoiding them. In one chaotic scene, Maud has sex with a stranger who then casually rapes her after Maud attempts to end their tryst. Instead of being a catalyst for Maud’s later actions, it instead shows that the event is merely another indignity in the humiliating catalog of Maud’s life, and that the man’s presence is insignificant in the grander scheme of things. While movies about the male psyche often show women as distracting sexual objects, and use sexual rejection as a justification for men’s anger, Saint Maud relegates the whole category of men to the sidelines. Maud’s struggles are completely internal, and it’s her complicated relationship with the women around her, not the men, that motivate her actions. In fact, Saint Maud might be one of the few movies that I’ve seen in which the female character has zero interest in men, and only interacts with them out of boredom. Men don’t feature in the conversations that Maud has with the other women in the movie. Except for that one rape sequence, men basically don’t exist. It’s refreshing to see a film that focuses on a woman’s psychological problems without somehow tying those problems to men.
The horror in this film is subtle, but disturbing nonetheless. While viewers might be familiar with some general concepts of religious zealotry, such as mortification of the flesh, those activities are rarely shown on film. Glass revels in the horror of this self-punishment as we see Maud kneel on popcorn kernels, burn her hand on a stove, and at one grotesque moment, wear shoes studded with nails. These scenes are squirm-inducing, but they’re also disturbing on a psychological level, pushing the viewer to ask whether we can so easily dismiss Maud as crazy when she’s engaging in historically supported acts of religious devotion. The true horror in this film is rooted in this question. When does obsessive behavior, even when cloaked in religion, start to cross the line into mental illness? And when do others have a responsibility to help someone from spiraling down too deeply?
Those around Maud question her religious devotion, but no one ever tries to stop her from practicing it. During one tense scene, Amanda and her friends drape a white cloth over Maud’s head and call her a nun, and Amanda scathingly rebukes Maud for intervening in Amanda’s sexual relationship with another woman, questioning whether Maud did it out of jealousy or bigotry. But even though it’s clear that the people around Maud, including fellow nurse Joy who knew Maud before her conversion, find her version of religion to be off-putting, they never look deeper to see what has pushed Maud into such zealotry. In an interview with Vulture, Glass said that when writing Maud’s character, she was inspired by the idea that religious oracle Joan of Arc might have suffered from temporal lobe seizures, and based Maud’s experiences off of that. Several times in the film we see Maud writhing on the floor in a way that some might describe as religious ecstasy, and others might describe as epileptic. But even though something is clearly off about Maud, no one attempts to help her. Whether it’s because of the stigma around mental illness, or the idea that it’s taboo to criticize someone else’s religious expression, no one tries to discover why Maud self-harms, isolates herself, or talks to a cockroach she thinks is God. The fact that this happens so regularly in real life makes this especially frightening, as how many mentally-ill people have slipped through the cracks of our society and ended up homeless, in jail, or dead?
In terms of pacing, Saint Maud is a slow burn, but I never thought it dragged. If the movie is a pot of water, then each scene raises the temperature until the pot boils over. The last fifteen minutes of the film are absolutely spectacular, and the final shot actually made me gasp out loud. After the movie was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Finally, here’s a film that removes the shiny gloss off of religious devotion, and shows how it can be a tool to imprison mentally-distraught people inside a cage of self-loathing. The fact that Maud is a woman in particularly woman-hating religion hammers home the movie’s point even harder. In any other story, Maud might have been a nun, a devotee amongst other devotees, but alone on the streets of Ireland, unrestrained religious fervor is as dangerous as any other untreated obsession.
Final consensus: Saint Maud is a terrifying film because it subverts our typical notions of religious devotion. The film dares to question the idea of “sainthood,” and opens the door to the idea that an excess of faith can lead to obsession, self-harm, and detachment from reality. It also asks us where we draw the line between devoted follower of Christ and the mentally ill. Can religious devotion be separated from unhealthy obsession? Many movies would hesitate to make a judgment, but Saint Maud has no such qualms. In the eyes of this film, a little religion is a dangerous thing.