When I talked to Rose Glass a year ago, she was in her garden. The coronavirus pandemic was in its early days. We discussed the universality of our shared frustration; how creating felt challenging in the midst of so many unknowns. At that point, her feature directional debut, Saint Maud, was still set for a 2020 release in the United States. A24, the studio behind other culture-shifting horror debuts like The Witch and Hereditary, scooped it up off the festival circuit.
But then Saint Maud was pushed. And pushed, and pushed again. It came out this past October in the UK, but American audiences won’t see it until the end of January 2021. The film hits theaters on January 29, before landing on VOD and Epix on February 12. That’s a long wait for a film that first made the rounds in 2019.
But Saint Maud is worth the wait. The film stars Morfydd Clark as the eponymous Maud, a palliative care nurse living in a remote English town. A traumatic situation involving a patient tipped Maud over the edge and made her a devout Christian. Early in the film, she asks God to give her a sign that she’s on the right path. Soon after, she cares for a woman named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer in the final stages of stage 4 lymphoma. Amanda is everything Maud isn’t; bohemian, seductive, hedonistic. And she draws the young nurse in. “To save a soul—that is quite something,” Maud says in prayer, believing it her mission to save Amanda from eternal damnation.
The first time I saw Saint Maud, it was shortly before I spoke with Glass. The second time I watched it, almost a full year had passed. And in that time, the film shifted and blossomed in my mind. Maud and Amanda were still with me, as prominent as ever. Memories of the film’s lush look were perfectly preserved—velvet fabrics and dense shadows in Amanda’s mysterious mansion. It’s a film that lingers, not only for its story, but for how visually and viscerally it is told. When I spoke with Glass, she let me in on the secrets of Saint Maud‘s interior world, from character development to visual inspirations.
We first see Maud on a hospital floor, covered in blood, in the middle of the traumatic event that will shift her entire worldview and lead her to God. She’s not actually Maud; she’s Katie, who changes her name to suit her new devotional lifestyle. She isn’t some one-note character, either. We learn, through context clues, that she once had a colorful personal life. But all that unraveled post-trauma.
“In my head anyway, she’s a character who’s probably always been wired a bit differently and always found it difficult to engage with other people and felt quite alienated,” Glass explained of Maud. “All of that stuff already existed. And then she became a nurse at a crazy busy hospital, and was probably incredibly stressed and dealing with all of this traumatic life and death kind of stuff. Then, she had this big trauma event in the hospital. It’s a whole pressure cooker of unfortunate stuff going on.”
Maud speaks to God throughout the film, which leaves us to wonder about her mental state. Glass didn’t necessarily want Maud to suffer from any specific condition. “I didn’t want the film to be like, ‘Oh, this is about a girl who’s got ‘blah blah blah.'” But there’s clearly something going on within her. The film is really about her journey through what can read as either madness or divine purpose.
Ehle’s Amanda is equally fascinating, though more purposely mysterious. In Saint Maud, a male acquaintance refers to her as Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In other interviews, Glass referred to her as a “Miss Havisham figure,” referring to the ruined, ghostly character from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. To me, Amanda’s isolation in a beautiful but fading mansion recalled Big and Little Edie of Grey Gardens. She’s certainly an archetype, although she subverts easy categorization—intentionally so.
“In a lot of films I like, there is this trope of the mysterious, intimidating older woman living by herself,” Glass explained. “I wanted to use that as a starting place, because that’s a cinematic tradition I’m interested in, but then hopefully try to do her in a different way.”
Amanda is a foil to Maud. The other side of a coin, if you will. Her hedonism contrasts Maud’s purity. She has a love affair with a younger woman, Carol (Lily Frazer), a relationship that upsets Maud. Not because Maud is in love with Amanda, or even homophobic, Glass explains. But because Carol threatens the connection Maud’s built with Amanda.
Originally, Amanda was a much older character. But Glass changed that to give the two women more commonality.
“It made the character a bit more attractive to Maud,” Glass said. “It also makes Amanda’s whole situation more tragic. Her career and success and independence has been cut short by illness, as opposed to [being] this mysterious old woman who’s sort of gracefully retiring and dying. It gives her more range.”
Film and art inspirations
As I mentioned above, the look of Saint Maud is a huge reason why it lingers. Maud’s home—that desolate English town—contrasts with the green velvet of Amanda’s house. The juxtaposition was intentional on Glass’s part. With the help of production designer Paulina Rzeszowska and director of photography Ben Fordesman, Glass created a space that was meant to be entrancing to Maud.
“Amanda’s house is the center of [Maud’s] strange, sensual journey,” she explained. “So the house had to be seductive and inviting, with characters emerging out of shadows.”
To accomplish this look, Glass took inspiration from the paintings of Henry Fuseli. “Paintings that are Gothic and romantic, with lots of black and then these weird ghostly figures coming out,” she said. William Blake is another obvious reference; so obvious, that Amanda gifts Maud a book of his art. His imagery—of demons and angels and light and dark—feed into Maud’s delusions, and inspire the film’s mesmerizing ending.
Glass also referenced Cindy Sherman’s photography as a visual reference, notably her iconic “Film Stills” series.
"I wanted it to look like anybody would understand it," said Cindy Sherman of her early "Film Stills" in our latest with @artnet (https://t.co/JA8bEJ4kuH).— Art21 (@art21) August 16, 2019
"I didn't want to make what looked like art."
A survey the artist's work is currently on view at the @NPGLondon. pic.twitter.com/srnQuV7a0D
Sherman’s photos represented the interiority of women. So do films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, which Glass also cited as inspirations. The result is a film that looks somewhat like the paintings it recalls. One in motion and conversation with the women who occupy every frame. That’s the divinity of Saint Maud, and what will help it linger for others as it already has for me.