A blood-soaked woman kneels on the floor, hands outstretched, staring blankly. She is silent and slack-jawed in scrubs and plastic gloves, bathed in the blue-grey light of a hospital ward. A body lies on a gurney across from her, long hair dripping blood. A cockroach scuttles across the ceiling.
These are the opening moments of Saint Maud (2019) the debut feature from writer-director Rose Glass and one of the most critically acclaimed British films of recent years. In spring 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Saint Maud was set to open in UK cinemas fresh off the back of a wave of ecstatic festival buzz. By the time the film finally did open in cinemas, more than a year later, it had gained a new relevance. Seen through post-pandemic eyes, this already compelling fable of isolation, faith and trauma becomes a timely horror about the psychological and physical toll of care work.
The bloody woman in those opening frames is Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young, devout Catholic nurse living an isolated life in a shabby English seaside resort. Maud, we soon learn, has recently left her hospital job after an unexplained traumatic incident. Now working as private carer, she is about to start a new job looking after Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a once famous choreographer with terminal cancer who is living out her lonely last days in a gothic hilltop mansion.
With Saint Maud, Glass taps into a dark vein of films which explore the complicated relationship between carers and their patients. Psychological horrors such as Misery (1990), Cries and Whispers (1972) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) vary wildly in tone, but they all capture the sinister power dynamics that can emerge in such relationships of dependency. The most obvious influence on Saint Maud is Persona (1966) and just as Ingmar Bergman’s nurse and patient appear to us as mirror images, so Amanda and Maud are presented as doubles, two sides of the same coin. Superficially, the women are opposites, the liberated libidinous artist versus the reserved ascetic nurse (“I have little time for creative types,” Maud confesses, “they tend to be rather self-involved”), but they actually share many parallels. The friendless Welsh nurse and the disabled American dancer are both outsiders, oddballs adrift in a rundown English seaside town. It turns out too that for all her apparent piety, Maud is a recent convert with her own history of promiscuity and boozing.
Part of what makes Saint Maud so effective, and so horrifying, is the way that the film disrupts the image of the virtuous female carer. As Glass enjoys reminding us, the same abject substances that are the staples of body horror – blood, vomit, excrement – are also central to the day-to-day reality of much care work. Caring is intimate labour which transgresses bodily boundaries and social taboos. It is also highly gendered work; the vast majority of nurses and carers are women.
On the surface then, quiet self-sacrificing Maud is the ideal carer. With her bare face, plain clothes and mousey hair, she’s unassuming to the point of invisibility, skilled at dealing with the messes of others’ bodies without attracting attention. Socially isolated and well-practiced in self-denial, Maud is fully dedicated to her duties and seems, at least at first, to be good at her job. In affecting early scenes, we watch Maud engage in the daily tasks of this intimate work, gently washing Amanda as she sits naked and wigless in the bath, or carefully manipulating her patient’s limbs during physical therapy. “My little saviour,” says Amanda at one point, as Maud holds her hand, eyes glowing with tenderness.
That initial bond between the two women might, in some parallel cinematic universe, have grown into a genuine relationship. But as the doomy score and claustrophobic camerawork constantly remind us, we’re not in that kind of movie. As in Persona, this relationship soon shifts into a sinister powerplay, oscillating between pity, disgust and eroticism. Despite her illness, the still hedonistic Amanda drinks, parties and hires sex workers, as Maud seethes in the kitchen reading William Blake and fingering her crucifix. “I don’t know if she’s a bigot, or jealous,” Amanda says to her lover at her birthday party, while Maud glowers in the background. Maud is the carer who cares too much, and soon she crosses the line from faith to fanaticism.
As Maud’s devotion deepens, we realise that the true erotic charge in the film is not between nurse and patient, but between God and believer. Maud’s highly personal style of worship includes self-inflicted penances which draw on BDSM – a once seen, never forgotten moment involving a nail-studded insole is directly inspired by a post Glass saw on a fetish website. This kinky tactility is a hallmark of the director’s style that can be traced back to her early shorts. Glass’s graduate film Room 55 also centres on an alienated woman, in this case a frustrated middle-aged television chef, who finds perverse fulfilment from an unexpected source. Set in a 1950s hotel (part Bates Motel, part Twin Peaks) the narrative sets out like a horror before unravelling into a gleefully perverse erotic adventure. Both films ripple with sly humour and suppressed desire, although Saint Maud carries this search for release to an altogether darker place.
When Maud communes with God, she describes the experience as a visceral pleasure: “a shiver, or a pulsing… all warm and good”. Thanks to Saint Maud's radical subjectivity, we get to experience these ‘godgasms’ too, swept along with Maud as the camera pulses and throbs. These moments are indicative of Glass’s bold decision to tell the whole story from Maude’s perspective. Trapped inside the head of our intoxicatingly unreliable narrator, we never quite know if we can trust what we see and hear. When our anti-heroine starts having visions, Joan of Arc style, we experience those visions too. When the grey reality of Maud’s daily life is suddenly fractured by an apparent miracle – a cyclone in a pint glass, a pair of garish neon wings – we share her difficulty in untangling fantasy from reality. Maud’s lopsided perspective is reflected by moments of disorientating uncanniness, sequences in which shots flip upside down or faces twist and distort like a fairground mirror. So deeply immersed are we, that we’re not even that surprised when it turns out that God, when he finally contacts Maud directly, speaks Welsh.
That revelation is one of several moments of surreal humour which punctuate the film like nails in a cross. For all its feverish intensity, Saint Maud is also darkly hilarious. Maud speaks to God in an unselfconscious monologue, like a teenage girl writing in her diary, filling him in on her menstrual cramps and nagging him to hurry up when salvation seems to be slow coming. Elsewhere we encounter a spectacularly dead-eyed hand job and a talking cockroach (called Nancy, according to the credits). These unexpected moments of relief are characteristic of a filmmaker who relishes wrongfooting her audience. Like any good nurse, Glass knows when to sugar the pill and when to roll up her sleeves and get on with it. As Glass skilfully guides us through her unique cinematic universe – from pleasure to pain, care to cruelty, crucifixes to kink – we soon realise there’s no point resisting. Like poor, strange, not-so-saintly Maud, we’re left with no choice but to stop fighting; just lie back and let the spirit move through you.
– Rachel Pronger