A24 manufactures another masterpiece in ‘Saint Maud’

Images courtesy A24.

9/10 When theaters closed last March and everything that was about to release was delayed, the biggest pain point for me was Saint Maud, set for an April 10, 2020 release and positioned as A24’s next horror masterwork. Now, almost a year after the bomb dropped, Maud has finally proceeded into American theaters, and she doesn’t disappoint. 

On the English coastline, a palliative care nurse who introduces herself as Maud (Morfydd Clark) begins working with Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a moderately famous American dancer dying of lymphoma. Maud had accidentally killed a patient when working at a hospital, after which she moved to private care and converted to Catholicism – she seems to have taken the name “Maud” as part of her conversion. Deeply traumatized, profoundly isolated and in constant stomach pain, Maud sinks rapidly into her mental and physical health crises, interpreting all her symptoms as communications from God and harming herself as a way to become closer to him. She determines to save the soul of Amanda, who is an atheist.

Saint Maud is a brutal portrait of a woman at the crossroads of religion and madness, at once an intimate character study because that’s what it is and a sweeping epic of immortality and damnation because that’s what Maud believes it to be. We spend most of the runtime walking with Maud in her delusion, but crucially, we are denied any supernatural interpretation. Many scenes enjoy their ambiguity, but there is no ambiguity at all in the overall work – nothing supernatural is happening, Maud is simply losing her mind.

This is made explicit with choice third-person shots in some scenes, and those choices seem to be made for Maud’s dignity. We don’t get to see her stumbling around the bar in a needless panic or hurting herself outside of her own controlled perspective, but we do pop into a third-person perspective to confirm the consequences of her actions anytime her own perspective doesn’t make them clear. This choice is the most telling about writer/director Rose Glass’ ethos here – the point is not to embarrass Maud, and Glass steers deliberately clear of doing that, the point is to understand the harm that she does.

Even without these corrective third-person shots, it would still be quite clear that Maud is making all of this up because we are shown the sources for all her delusions. After she kills the hospital patient, she sees a cockroach on the ceiling, and she sees cockroaches as manifestations of God moving forward. When Amanda gives her a book of William Blake’s paintings of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Maud’s hallucinations take on the paintings’ style. When God finally speaks to her, he does so in Morfydd Clark’s own voice toned down, speaking in her native Welsh. She’s literally talking to herself in this scene.

The A24 marketing train has gotten so dominant, AMC tried to sell tickets to classics on Saint Maud’s strength, turning it into the climax of a sort of series. This was last year, before the COVID-19 crisis made classics central to theaters’ bottom lines.

There’s lots of other symbolism to crawl into if one’s so inclined, but that’s Maud’s game to play. Saint Maud is about observing the kind of person who seeks out meaning in biblical minutia, not being one, and it’s more impactful if the biblical stuff comes off as the nonsense that it explicitly is. The heart of the film is the things we can clearly see from inside Maud’s perspective but that she chooses to ignore.

Saint Maud is a dominant display of marketing and reputation leverage from A24, the 8-year-old film distribution company that has quickly become known for successfully selling hard-viewing arthouse films to audiences at a scale written off as impossible for most of film history. They’ve already got a Best Picture winner in Moonlight, and as directors and actors split acrimoniously from Warner Bros. and Disney can’t seem to stop firing them midway through production, many of the most exciting directors working today – Alex Garland, Robert Eggers, Ari Astor – are all getting their starts on A24 films.

Saint Maud represents a clear step up in their process’ ambition. The studio has put its full weight into elevating the first feature of writer/director Rose Glass, relatively fresh from graduating film school in 2014, and seems to be selling a film for the first time entirely on the studio’s own credibility. Previous marketing efforts, most notably for The Witch, relied heavily on the festival circuit or the director’s previous work, but here, they’re selling a completely new vision purely on the strength of gems they’ve found before.

Is Saint Maud on the level of the studio’s greatest masterpieces like Under the Skin, Ex Machina and Hereditary? Not quite, but in a collection of intimate and unadulterated visions, no new voice is out of place.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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