I first saw Saint Maud on March 4, 2020 in a screening room in midtown Manhattan, six days before the Refinery29 office — and soon the rest of New York City — went on lockdown. Rose Glass’ debut feature centers around Maud, a reclusive and extremely devout hospice nurse (Morfydd Clarke) living in a bleak English seaside town who becomes obsessed with Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), the former dancer she cares for. The movie, which runs at just 84 minutes, is a self-contained and twisted deep dive into Maud’s tortured psyche, culminating with an unsettlingly transcendent end sequence that — fittingly — has wormed its way deep into my own brain during 14 months of lockdown.
What makes Saint Maud (now available to stream on Amazon Prime after a February release on Epix) so compelling is that it takes place in a world of surrealist horror. We’re experiencing actions both as they are actually unfolding, but also as Maud perceives them through her increasingly vivid religious faith. Having recently converted to Catholicism after a traumatic incident with a patient led her to abandon her old life — and even her birth name, Katie — she feels called to serve God in increasingly zealous ways. But unlike other religiously-centered horror films, there is no haunting to exorcise, or ghost to expel. The devil is in Maud’s mind — and so are we. The movie is immersive, and trippy, and you often don’t quite know where reality ends and hallucinations begin. That is, until the very end, when Glass pulls back the curtain and reveals the truth in a moment of absolutely terrifying clarity.
Maud’s relationship with Amanda is both intensely sensual and full of mutual disgust. The former judges her charge as a sinner, to be prayed for and saved, while the latter perceives her caretaker as an oddity, to be toyed with as a twisted form of final amusement. And yet, they’re completely fascinated with each other in a way that becomes increasingly toxic. Maud tries to isolate Amanda from her friends — including the companion she pays for sex — but she’s also drawn to her hedonistic world. Amanda, who’s angry about her illness, cruelly transfers her emotional pain onto Maud. Eventually, it all backfires, and Maud finds herself alone once more, craving connection with a force bigger than herself. Or, does she just want to be seen in the real world?
After being violently assaulted by a man she meets during a night out, Maud responds to what she believes is the voice of God, calling on her to prove herself. She breaks into Amanda’s home, and stabs her to death in bed, believing her to be a demonic presence. In the aftermath of that perceived act of devotion, Maud appears to sprout angel wings. Wearing a pink sheet draped in a style reminiscent of medieval religious iconography and holding rosary beads, she walks to the beach, douses herself in acetone, and strikes a light. At first, her self-immolation is presented as a triumphant ascension into sainthood. Maud’s face looks upwards towards the dawn sky, and whispers “Glory be to God,” in Welsh, greeting her saviour as the flames frame her face. Beams of light sprout out of her body, forcing onlookers to their knees in awe. But then, very suddenly, the scene shifts and we get a jolted into Rose’s actual reality as she burns alive, shrieking in pain and fear.
"It's done deliberately in a way that's meant to take you aback," Glass told USA Today back in February. "It's a fun one to watch with audiences. Before the lockdown, there were quite vocal reactions at the end, which is very gratifying for a nervous filmmaker. Not many people shared their theories with me, but I'm sort of happy to just leave it up to the individual. I always think it's very unambiguous."
The director has compared her character’s journey to that of Travis Bickle, Robert Deniro’s tragic figure in 1976’s Taxi Driver, who goes on a murderous rampage in what he believes to be an attempt to purge the filth from a corrupt New York City. Maud sees herself as an avenging angel, and after seeing her life through her twisted perspective, the final scene forces the audience to confront the pain and delusion that could lead someone to this point. How many of us would have turned a blind eye, rather than take the more socially awkward path of reaching out to a stranger?
A great many religions are based on myths of self-sacrifice in the name of God. How different is Maud’s journey from say, Joan of Arc’s, who led the French into battle after feeling called, only to die on the pyre at the hands of the English? Is it just a question of narrative framing, as Glass’ ending appears to suggest? Though it lasts approximately two seconds, Maude’s piercing scream opens up a bottomless void of existential questions about the nature of faith and religious belief, but also the dangerous impact of isolation, something that we’ve become all-too familiar with over the past year.