Just another funny sexy horror movie about God.

By Darren Franich
January 27, 2021 at 09:30 AM EST
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Credit: A24

You never know when God will come into you. For Maud (Morfydd Clark), Christianity is a recent devotion, and already the shy young hospice nurse barely speaks to anyone except her creator. "I hope you will reveal your plan for me soon," she begs, in dreamy narration that sounds like a love letter. Her latest assignment is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a hedonistic choreographer still smoking through late-stage cancer. Maud thinks she's a soul that needs saving.

They don't have much in common. Amanda lives in a mansion that looks haunted by rich ghosts, and still has enough energy through treatment to hook up with a much younger woman. Advertisements for her old shows promote teasingly erotic titles: The Body Is a Stage, The Anatomy of Dance. Whereas Maud appears so serene in her spirituality — and so uninterested in material pleasures — that at first I thought she was a nun.

The walk from the nurse's shoebox apartment to the patient's hilltop home requires a literal ascension. Writer-director Rose Glass films the short journey with suggestively off-kilter complications. They live in an English coastal town worthy of a Richard Curtis movie: small enough to casually run into everyone, overpopulated with artsy types, the water never far away. The mood is gray, though, and Maud's lonely life looks empty. The big house exudes a deathly mood, but Amanda's firecracker attitude sparks with raw energy. When she throws a party full of visiting friends, it's like someone squeezed London into a country estate.

You're primed for a tale of corruption or salvation, the fresh naive innocent, the sad cynical nonbeliever. Don't judge a book by its cover — or don't forget how nasty the Bible can get. Maud's relationship with the Almighty is complicated. "When he's pleased, it's like a shiver," she tells Amanda, "Or sometimes it's like a pulsing, and it's all warm and good." I'll have what she's having.

Saint Maud is a remarkable feature debut for Glass, who conjures an intimate mood of psychological horror before veering assuredly into a more extreme freakout. And it's a star-making moment for Clark, who shape-changes creeping desperation behind a mask of apparent reserve. At one point, Maud climbs a stairway into a kind of godly embrace, the walls of the house practically pulsing as she shivers with divine ecstasy. It's scary and outrageous and stunning — a genuine theistic orgasm — and that sequence announces the women behind and in front of the camera as magnetic talents to watch. Meanwhile, what a joy to see Ehle given such a meaty role, sardonic and terrified, right after everyone rediscovered her unfussy heroism in Contagion.

As it happens, this was the last movie I saw in a theater before Contagion became a documentary. (Saint Maud'ss finally out in theaters this week, and will launch on Epix Feb. 12th — and if you're signing up for Epix, why not check out Perpetual Grace, LTD, another jangly-nerved tale of funny-freaky-fiendish spirituality?) Writing a review of Saint Maud lo these many months later, I was shocked to discover it's only 83 minutes long. The brisk runtime finds room for some profanely sacred influences — the sapphic-Catholic undertones of Ingmar Bergman at his weirdest, the chaotic physical flagellation of Repulsion or Black Swan. Maud's time with Amanda unsettles something long buried, and there's another stunner set piece where a visit to the local pub spirals into a night full of bad decisions. The film loses steam when the plot drifts the women apart, but Clark's fearsome performance anchors the surreal final act. Her body is a stage for Saint Maud's demonic dance. B+

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