“You must be the loneliest girl in the world,” says Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), bedbound and dying of spinal lymphoma. At her bedside, draped in a bedsheet, rosary beads dangling from her throat, disturbed young nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) only looks confused. How do you care for someone whose mental illness makes her stifling and abrasive to spend time around? How do you offer connection to someone in full flight from her own identity? The persecution Maud suffers isn’t crucifixion; it isn’t starvation or flaying or breaking on the rack. It’s dismissal, it’s mockery, it’s the curdled looks of guilty indifference on the faces of the old coworkers she runs into on the street, the men she picks up at bars, the patient she clumsily and overzealously attempts to convert. Rose Glass’s film is best understood as in conversation with works like Taxi Driver and Excision: what do you do with someone that nobody wants?
Clark is riveting as Maud, her huge black eyes almost sharklike, her skin nearly translucent. Her awkward schoolgirl manner around Amanda is almost physically painful, as is her unselfaware prattling about feeling the presence of the divine in which she reveals some sort of sublimated sexual fixation, unconsciously likening hearing the voice of God to experiencing orgasm. In the grand tradition of Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils and Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Clark has ample opportunity to writhe and hiss, complexion blotchy, tangled hair smeared wet across her face, caught in the throes of forces her mind and body can’t contain. What no one will give her, she manufactures for herself without mediation or restraint.
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Trials and Tribulations
The onscreen chemistry between Clark and Ehle proves so strong it’s hard to believe they’re only sharing scenes in the film’s first third. There’s a thick, tangible sexual tension in the way these two women coming untethered from life in very different ways try to find what they need in one another: for Maud, purpose. For Amanda, company and entertainment. “I don’t know whether she’s a bigot or just jealous,” Amanda jokes to her friends in the midst of a lavish party thrown to celebrate what will almost certainly be her own last birthday. She’s referring to Maud’s pitiably awkward attempt to convince a sex worker Amanda sees not to answer her calls anymore. It’s a complex little social tangle. Maud’s fanatical Roman Catholicism plays its part, but there’s also the escort’s (Lily Frazer) visible contempt for the dying woman, which Maud glimpses while spying on an intimate moment, and the cruel game Amanda plays with Maud by pretending to flirt with her genuine faith.
To Maud that flirtation is obviously a confused one, entangled with sexual longing and a burning need to feel like a part of something. The scene depicting her direct communication with God — heralded by the appearance of a cockroach — is astonishingly intimate, evocative of Black Phillip’s monologue near the end of Robert Eggers’ The Witch with its deep, sepulchral hiss of a voice and understanding of the importance of leaving divinity largely out of focus. That it’s actually Clark talking to herself — pitched down and speaking in her native Welsh — only makes it more agonizing. Glass’s debut film has a few minor false steps — a possession scene marred by poor special effects, a sexy dance sequence that’s anything but — but on the whole Saint Maud is a desperate and beautiful look at the lives of broken people in retreat from life’s relentless hostility and isolation.