I finally got round to watching Saint Maud. I first saw a trailer for this in March 2020, just before the first lockdown, when I went to see the adaptation of The Color Out Of Space. At the time I wasn’t too excited by the trailer, or the film I went to see. As it seemed to get a very good reaction when it finally came out (its distribution to cinemas was delayed, like many other films in 2020) I thought I’d have another look.
It’s very much in the style of modern “psychological horrors” like Censor – there are horrible scenes of extreme violence and nastiness, but it can all be interpreted as “in the mind”, or at least the actions of someone driven into extreme delusions. The backdrop is always some traumatic event in the recent past, which we are drip-fed details of over the course of the film (there may be a crucial sequence shown right at the start, which we can only appreciate once all the information is available), and there are recurrent motifs linked to the Primal Scene that affect the central character in ways we can only understand at the resolution. It is a jigsaw being assembled, and we only have a fleeting glimpse of the picture on the box at the start, so we sit patiently as unremarkable details build up and we have to see how they link at the climax. The soundtrack is drab and limited, droney ambient or obscure fringe techno, and the filming sticks closely to TV drama realism except for the breaks in to flashback or instant bursts of fast terror situated somewhere and sometime else.
Saint Maud starts with an introductory sequence of bloody peril. A slow-moving close-up of hair and clothing on what seems to be a medical trolley, oozing on to the floor.
Cut to a young woman seemingly in shock.
The dead in full.
Back to the young woman, now apparently coming out of her trance and noticing her surroundings again.
Noticing a bug crawling around. The bug is the recurring feature.
Then we have the titles flash by quickly and we’re in to the main story, as the crouching medical orderly is now at home getting ready to go out for what turns out to be a new job working as a carer for a private patient living alone in a large house. The departing nurse tells her her new employer can be a bit difficult (putting it politely).
She will live on-site in her new role, and she brings her crucifix as the only new decoration she adds to her room.
In the early scenes we can hear an interior monologue which sounds at first like a letter to a relation, however when she describes her new client (one of the “creative types” that she finds “rather self-involved”), who has terminal cancer, she concludes “I daresay you’ll be seeing this one soon” – so we have been hearing her regular prayer to God. Her patient is Amanda Kohl, a famous dancer with many books published about her highly-respected and celebrated work.
She is working under the name “Maud”, but there is a scene when she is walking about in the town and encounters another woman, who seems to be an old friend when they worked at the hospital together, who calls her Katie. She alludes to some previous crisis that caused Katie/Maud to leave that job. This is all happening in the same small world – the hospital is known to Amanda, who thinks it is a terrible place. We are at a seaside location some way away from London, and some of Amanda’s visiting friends don’t know why she has come away here. If she has a family connection then it is not mentioned. She does have at least one visitor that Maud does not approve of, whom she is having a relationship with.
Maud’s tensions with Amanda come to a head at the latter’s birthday party, which is quite a big event. It is unclear how involved Maud is in organising it – she seems to be working in the kitchen, even though she’s the nurse, and some other PA-type person assists her in bringing out the cake. After an angry scene she loses the job, and has a break spent back in another bedsit like the one she started in. She goes out on boozy, sex-filled nights out alone, and we hear this was her lifestyle previously, before the fatal incident that she has flashbacks to. She becomes more concerned with spiritual imagery, cutting out pages from the book about William Blake that Amanda gave her. She stalks and meets the new carer at the big house. The new nurse is called Esther, which may be a faint allusion to a Biblical story of a woman who replaced another, but Maud doesn’t seem to notice.
Her old friend fails to revive interest in the outer world.
Instead it’s a quick drive to the final breakdown.
Despite references to God and Heaven, there is little actual religion in this film. Maud/Katie owns some specimens of what we might call “Catholic kitsch” (battered miniature figures of Mary and Christ and various saints), we never see her go to Church or encounter a priest or read any texts, including the Bible. She has no connection with any historical saints or their writings on suffering and faith, and her attempts at mortification of the flesh are ritualised self-harming that doesn’t need any canonized exemplars. If she did talk to a priest any one she met in modern Britain would tell her to seek help at least for the various physical pains she suffers involuntarily, as well as finding alternatives to the ones she is inflicting on herself. It makes sense that Blake is the only author here apart from Amanda, since he is the patron saint of “spiritual, not religious” life, which is the path she is following. There’s a strand in British culture of treating Catholicism as exotic and quaint, either amusing or disturbing but always weird and strange and apart from the presumed sensible Anglican mainstream. Saint Maud avoids that by never being clear what Maud’s faith is at all, other than a confidence that she can hear the voice of some God.
It all has a nasty end, but it is ambiguous what bits really happen and which are imagined. Did Maud make a copy of the key so she could get back in the old house? Why didn’t her employer have the locks changed anyway, if she thought the person she was sacking was unstable? Why didn’t the agency pick up on the name change, or have doubts about her suitability given her recent history? Would a hospital nurse, who seems to have been working in A&E or not far away from it, be considered qualified to switch immediately to home palliative care? How does she afford to live after being sacked? All these simple material details can get missed out when the camerawork is telling us this is a serious, realistic vision of modern life and not a farcical cheap horror about snarling demonic voices and blood splatter.
Like Censor (which came out later, but was made at the same time – all films from 2020-22 simply had to wait their turn) this passes the time nicely, both examples of a niche genre with its own conventions and standard themes, that are getting a bit stale already. It will all be compiled and celebrated later.