SAINT MAUD (Cert. 15) could be seen as a meditation on the philosopher A.N. Whitehead’s remark that religion is what we do with our own solitariness. But that is to misunderstand not only the intentions of its director Rose Glass (a vicar’s granddaughter) but also Whitehead’s carefully argued thesis. Equally disingenuous is the claim by those critics and publicists that this is a horror story. Saint Maud is too rich to be confined to any one category.
Confinement, solitary or otherwise, is what drives the plot. Maud is played by Morfydd Clark, who brilliantly doubled as mother and wife in The Personal History of David Copperfield (Arts, 24 January 2020). Here she’s private nurse to the terminally ill dancer-choreographer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle). Each character is physically, mentally, and spiritually contained by forces either external to or within themselves.
Amanda’s body, once freely contorted by balletic poses seen in old photographs, now requires another to manipulate it. Muscular atrophy leads to accidie, her inertia and boredom seeking relief in hiring a female prostitute. “Am I indecent?” asks Amanda. “No, you’re lost,” says Maud. She should know, having been there herself until recently finding God. Or was it the other way round, when she changed her name from Katie to that of a medieval saint renowned for caring? She wears a Mary Magdalene scapula bought online and prays before a crucifix
Her new-found faith is practised in isolation from any community of believers. When Amanda gives her “little Saviour” a book about William Blake, Maud seizes on his distrust of organised religion. This only retards her spiritual development, leaving Maud detained within loneliness. In Whitehead’s process metaphysics, religion may begin in solitariness, but must of necessity take on a social dimension in which individual faith-claims can be assessed and moderated. Maud prefers to remain in an almost solipsistic relationship with her God.
As disillusionment sets in, we are left wondering whether it is perhaps the devil that she hears. It is questionable which of her experiences is an objective reality rather than the working of desperate, fevered imagination, powered with Blake-like imagery. Amanda is not dissimilar. Her own version of transcendence is to continue, through alcohol and pills, creating highs for herself. The alternative, she tells Maud, is to feel herself go into a very dark space, the kind envisaged in her erstwhile Elektra Falling performance. Amanda and Maud are each seeking after an ecstatic level of being, whether sensual or spiritual, or both.
The film, with its mantra “Never waste your pain”, contains hints of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There is also a moment straight from The Exorcist and none the worse for that. Even so, Glass is very much her own person. As she has put it, God can grab us by the shoulders before setting us back on the holy path. This is a profound film, sensitively tracing with humour and compassion lives driven by loneliness to find a solitude of heart capable of holding the world in its embrace.