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One Good Thing: The gorgeous horror movie St. Maud finds religious ecstasy in self-destruction

A surprisingly apt post-pandemic horror film, St. Maud reminds us that hell is other people.

Morfydd Clark in St. Maud.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“You must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen,” Jennifer Ehle’s dying artist tells Morfydd Clark’s hospice nurse Maud near the climax of St. Maud. It’s maybe the deepest moment of human connection the withdrawn Maud will ever have — but it comes far too late to draw her back to the shores of humanity.

One of the quirks of 2021 is that an onslaught of films made before the pandemic will be entering a world that’s profoundly different from the one in which they were made. St. Maud, a riveting psychological horror film about a wayward girl seeking sainthood at any price, first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 and had a limited theatrical run this January. The film hasn’t quite landed on the mainstream radar yet, due to its rather erratic pandemic distribution. But it just started streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and its arrival provides an interesting entry point into the distance between pre- and post-pandemic horror.

For St. Maud, a film that’s ostensibly about religion but is really about deep existential loneliness, offers us an opportunity to meditate on a year of living largely in solitude — and whether that solitude has brought us closer to humanity, or to self-annihilation.

St. Maud is a study in spiritual chiaroscuro — an interplay between light and darkness

St. Maud marks a stunning feature film debut for writer-director Rose Glass. Understated yet opulent, measured, and intensely creepy, it’s a tour de force in balancing uncomfortable levels of tension and suspense with deep pathos. The film’s painstaking visual design constantly drags us into the past, with meditative tableaus straight out of Renaissance religious art and chiaroscuro contrasts so dramatic that shards of light frequently feel like penetrative attacks.

In the middle of this literal and metaphorical warfare between light and dark weaves Maud, a novice religious zealot whose mental breakdown over the course of the film accompanies an ever deeper, ever more dangerous communion with God. Historically, sublimated psychosexual desires once manifested as religious ecstasy among nuns in medieval convents; Maud, channeling that same phenomenon, first experiences it as a warm orgasmic “shiver” she feels when God is near, but rapidly progresses to a far more toxic mania that leads her to try extreme methods of self-harm to induce a physical and spiritual closeness to the divine.

Maud enjoys a moment of shadowy communion with something (un)holy.

The film implies that Maud’s increasingly extreme, apparently untreated mental illness may have developed in response to the traumatic death of a former patient. Following the incident, she has chosen self-exile, turning her back on her friends and community, even changing her name from Katie to Maud, which she believes is more saintly. Yet despite her increasing isolation, she seems equally desperate for community and love.

This longing, combined with her newfound religious mission, leads her to fixate on her palliative care client Amanda (the always sublime Ehle), a faded but still spirited artist whose celebrated dance career has been cut short by chronic illness. Amanda lives, as every Norma Desmond must, in an ominous Grand Guignol mansion. This one sits high atop a desolate moor overlooking Maud’s seaside town and its even bleaker cheap carnival atmosphere.

As they grow close, Amanda uses Maud’s religious zeal to subtly manipulate her, teasing her with gifts of art by William Blake (the universal textbook of schizophrenic religious neophytes throughout cinema) and dubbing Maud her “savior.” But she is not prepared for the obsession she ignites in her nurse, nor for the darkness Maud manifests in the name of saving her favorite patient.

The intersection of religious ecstasy, faith, and horror is classic territory for great cinema

St. Maud aligns with other wildly gothic explorations of religious fervor in women — especially the potent cocktail of a group of remotely situated women left to conflate their own dark desires with the call of the divine. Like the antiheroine of Black Narcissus (1947), Maud channels mental illness into social alienation and rebellion. As in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carl Dreyer’s classic silent film meditation on martyrdom, the closer Maud gets to death, the more terrifyingly certain of her own divinity she becomes. And like the shattering Martyrs (2008), St. Maud transforms the idea of sainthood through suffering into an allegory for trauma, abuse, and finding paths to recovery — even if those paths are horrific.

But St. Maud, by virtue of appearing in a post-pandemic world, also offers a space for meditation and reflection amid its solitude. (Hell, if you discount all the blood, bleach, and lesbian subtext, it’s almost like going to church.) How differently, I wonder, would I have read its title character’s loneliness before I spent a year in self-imposed loneliness? Would I have read her choice to alienate herself as pathological? Probably. But now, in a post-pandemic world, it’s hard not to see the extreme introversion of Maud’s title character as a symptom of the universal human condition. We’re all traumatized; we’re all isolated. But does that mean we’re all further from our inherent humanity than we were a year ago, or are we closer?

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.
Who among us hasn’t mistaken our own social awkwardness for a religious experience?

St. Maud raises that question, and then offers two potential answers through its two main characters. The underlying irony of Maud’s character is that in her quest for divine love, Maud turns away from other people, losing her chance at meaningful human connection while pursuing a mystical connection that may or may not exist.

By contrast, for all she’s become withdrawn due to her illness, Amanda still has friends, a social life, joy, and love. Her own trauma seems to have brought her closer to other people; she is in no need of the ostensible salvation Maud tries to offer her. Instead, she views Maud’s religiosity as a symptom of her real, deeper problem: an inability to connect.

As Maud, Morfydd Clark performs a martyrdom that’s sullen, petty, and entirely self-absorbed. Even as she clearly longs for acceptance, she’s completely uninterested in other people. Though she’s obsessed with possessing Amanda, she sees her patient mainly as a token — a potential saved soul, an offering from Maud to God. Her belief that she communicates directly with God gives her a superiority complex that further alienates her from the people showing her the greatest kindnesses.

Yet even as she’s doing her best to do her worst by everyone else, Maud is no less mesmerizing or tragically vulnerable. In one scene, after a wave of self-doubt and in a last-ditch effort to reenter society, she goes to a bar and diligently tries to remember how to act like a normal functioning human.

It doesn’t go well — but who among us, especially after the long pandemic year, doesn’t know exactly how she feels?

Throughout the film, numerous characters do attempt to befriend and connect to Maud, with varying degrees of good faith. But Maud, like countless Travis Bickles and Christopher McAndlesses before her, seems to have already chosen her own self-destructive journey before the film’s first frame. Why? We don’t really know — again, her trauma may be the root cause — but it’s almost beside the point. Maud’s existential crisis could be anyone’s. And fans of other recent tales in which zealous belief leads the protagonists down dark paths, like First Reformed (2018) and Take Shelter (2011), will know what’s coming long before Maud herself does.

It’s almost easiest to view St. Maud, a slight film at just 84 minutes long, as a tone poem about faith. But that understates just how visceral and taut, how claustrophobic and unsettling, those 84 minutes are. The film is visually shrouded in darkness, with light serving mainly as a respite from the shadows, but it’s Maud’s psyche that’s toughest to confront — if only because her doomed progress toward her own oblivion is a horrifically relatable fate.

St. Maud is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu with an Epix subscription.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.