If there were ever a case of a stellar directing debut more poorly treated in the marketplace than “Saint Maud,” I’d like to hear about it. A startling psychological horror story with a breakout performance by Welsh actress Morfydd Clark, the film was the talk of the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, got snapped up by indie distributor A24, and then saw its theatrical release scotched by the pandemic. It opened in mostly-empty movie houses last month (none in Boston) and finally comes to video on demand this week — exclusively on the EPIX subscription streaming platform. Thus the Balkanization of content prompted by the streaming platform wars punishes audiences and filmmakers alike.
The filmmaker here is Rose Glass, who wrote and directed “Saint Maud” and who situates us within the mind of a desperately troubled young woman. We never learn exactly what drove Maud (Clark) from her job at a hospital, but when the film starts she has come out of a nervous breakdown into a rapturous evangelical fervor. “When you pray, do you get a response?” asks the woman for whom Maud has hired on as a private hospice nurse. “Sometimes He talks,” she shyly admits.
This new client is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a celebrated choreographer and bohemian artiste — think Pina Bausch with a smidgen of Norma Desmond — whose body is ravaged by cancer but whose mind isn’t going anywhere. Both moved by and scornful of Maud’s spiritualism, she gifts the girl a book of phantasmagorical William Blake drawings and hints that she might be willing to be saved, both of which conspire to send Maud over the edge she has been dancing along for some time.
More than that I cannot say, other than to recommend “Saint Maud” even if your tastes run the other direction from horror films. Working with cinematographer Ben Fordesman, Glass invests the seaside city of Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, with a kind of seedy beauty, and she visualizes Maud’s mental unraveling and ascension to sainted madness with an eye to the character’s loneliness and our unease. Without going overboard, the camerawork highlights the heroine’s estrangement through high angles that suggest either a God’s-eye-view or a clinical case study. At times it’s difficult to tell where the real world leaves off and Maud’s illuminated inner landscape takes over. Presumably she’s not actually levitating off the floor in one scene, but in this film, you’re never quite sure.
If there’s precedent for “Saint Maud,” it would be Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve goes murderously bonkers over the course of one very long weekend. Glass has more empathy for her delusional heroine, though, and more recourse to established tropes of modern indie horror movies, many of them directed by women. The score by Adam Janota Bzowski growls along the subsonic edge of hearing and Maud’s increasing desire for martyrdom has elements of squishy body horror. Yet we’re made to feel as frightened for her as by her.
Rooting the film and providing it with a damaged but beating heart is Clark in the lead. The actress has a pre-Raphaelite delicacy that can be used to dramatic effect (the wronged daughter in “Love and Friendship”) or comedic (the ditzy romantic interest in “The Personal History of David Copperfield”). Here Clark goes physically plain yet emotionally epic, placing Maud’s religious ecstasy on that point on the graph where the devout meets the sexual and insanity becomes sanctified. There’s a light in Maud fighting to get out. God help her and us when it does.
Written and directed by Rose Glass. Starring Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle. Available on EPIX. 84 minutes. R (disturbing and violent content, sexual content, and language).