Saint Maud (2021; available on EPIX via Prime Video Channels) has been marketed like a horror movie, along the lines of Ari Aster’s Midsommar or any number of films examining various and sundry mixtures of religion (especially Christianity) and horror. The reason is easy to see: not only have Aster’s visions been highly successful, but religion deals with the invisible and the numinous, which borders the horrible and the terrifying unseen. However, Saint Maud‘s director, Rose Glass, has said that she conceived it as a psychological thriller, more than a horror. It deals with themes—appropriate for our times—of isolation, loneliness, and, as she says in one interview, “about people going mad in confined spaces.” It is a subtle and promising feature debut from Glass.
The film centers on Maud (an alternatingly shy and forceful Morfydd Clark), a live-in nurse who is assigned to patients in need of palliative care. At the beginning, she mentions (in prayer) her “next case,” although we never see any others—except in the opening scene, where she is sitting, bloody, in a shower stall, while a dead woman lies on a gurney in the other room. We never learn exactly what happened, or what part Maud (or Katie?) played in the woman’s death. We become fairly certain, however, that it was not entirely an accident, and that Maud has not been honest with her new employer about the reason she was dismissed from the hospital.
But the result of that experience for Maud is that she is “reborn” (to the extent of taking a new name) and she has dedicated her life to serving God. She prays often, and the first thing she does when she arrives at Amanda’s (Jennifer Ehle) house is to take down a picture and put up her crucifix. Her religious conviction, bending toward intense fervor and mystical ecstasy, becomes the pivot of the film’s ambiguity. Glass tells the story from Maud’s perspective, and she is unreliable as a narrator. That unreliability culminates in the final scene, in which the viewer is asked to make a decision for or against Maud’s belief.
That decision is one people make all the time about all kinds of religious belief and experience. It is a decision that runs along the line between hearing from God and simply “hearing voices” (see Three Christs). For the agnostic or atheist, everyone who claims to hear from God is delusional. For the believer, there is a range of possibilities, from mental illness to actual revelation. For Lutherans and many other Christians, every possible revelation or word from God must be tested against the revelation given through the prophets and apostles in the Scriptures.
Saint Maud keeps open the possibility that Maud is in fact hearing from God. She is viewed sympathetically, though that sympathy is harder and harder to sustain as the film goes on. Through the eyes of Joy, her former co-worker, our initial judgment is softened on the possibly murderous side of Maud’s psychosis, which heightens the tension as we approach the climax.
Though Saint Maud fits comfortably in the dark and possibly nihilistic realm (“nihilistic art horror,” a friend called it) of recent films like Hereditary and The Lodge, the visual and religious connections are much closer to the psychological and existential terror of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Maud has a large cockroach in place of Karin’s giant spider, and she, like Karin, is waiting for a physical and momentous encounter with “God.” Both women’s mental states are precarious, made even more so by their particular brands of religious faith. Karin is isolated on the island with her father and brother, but Maud is isolated completely, cut off emotionally and interpersonally from everyone around her. So she tries to exercise control over her environment in unhealthy and increasingly unhinged ways. Unlike Peter in Hereditary, whose situation ends in complete hopelessness, Maud finally reaches her climax of catharsis. (The sexual and the religious are tangled throughout, as they are in Bergman’s films, not to mention in the long history of mysticism’s language about union with God.) The question is whether that is a release to salvation or a damning destruction.
Other than a couple extreme facial expressions (ecstasy or agony?), everything that Maud does in the first half of the movie might appear as normal Christian-American experience and activity. This, it seems to me, is actually the fundamental (no pun intended) problem with much of American Christianity. Maud makes a sort of shrine out of religious items associated primarily with Roman Catholicism (saints’ cards, rosary, crucifix), but her actual religion is where American Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism overlap and intertwine. That religion is enthusiasm, or the religion of, literally, “God-within-ism.”
Of course, that religion is not confined to any particular stripe of Christian denomination. The early Lutherans polemically called all of it, in German, Schwärmerei, from a word for “swarming;” hence, “raving.” So Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, “In these matters, which concern the spoken, external Word, it must be firmly maintained that God gives no one his Spirit or grace apart from the external Word which goes before. We say this to protect ourselves from the enthusiasts, that is, the ‘spirits,’ who boast that they have the Spirit apart from and before contact with the Word” (SA III, 8, 3; Kolb/Wengert ed., 322). In another place, Luther says of Karlstadt that he would want to “be considered the greatest spirit of all, he who has devoured the Holy Spirit, feathers and all” (“Against the Heavenly Prophets,” Luther’s Works [American Edition], 40:83).
In the movie, Maud demonstrates exactly this kind of religion on numerous occasions. At one point, she is reading a book about William Blake, given to her by Amanda, from which she cuts numerous pictures. One section that she reads mentions that Blake did not want anything to do with any organized religion, preferring a solitary religion “of the heart.” I suspect that many people would find themselves comfortable with the individualized nature of (most of!) Maud’s religious experiences, but increasingly uncomfortable with the results.
One might make a distinction between Maud’s delusions (as I take them to be) and true spirituality. But where is the line? And how would anyone know where to draw it? If the experience of God is completely within and depends only on what I feel and hear from God, what finally is the difference between what “we” would say and what Maud says? It is not a difference of kind, but only of degree. And Maud ends up following her god’s inspiration all the way to her own suicide.
I think Rose Glass is sympathetic to Maud, but someone watching the film might easily dismiss Maud’s religious delusions as an indictment of all religion, especially Christianity (from which she takes her outward images). It would not be difficult to read her spiritual experience as a dangerous fanaticism, and then project that on to all religious belief (à la the late Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris). But what is dangerous is not Christianity itself, but the subjective, autonomous, and interior “spirit” apart from the Word. Maud has no way to tell the difference between the voice she hears and the voice of God. And that sort of en-theo-siasm is not just a problem in the narratives of psychological dramas.