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Column: Riveting, unsettling 'Saint Maud' establishes Rose Glass as bold cinematic voice

Morfydd Clark in "Saint Maud." Photo courtesy of A24/TNS.

A chilling atmosphere, excellent acting and surreal storytelling all help Rose Glass’ "Saint Maud" rise above the tropes of its genre, resulting in a strong and captivating debut feature for Glass.

"Saint Maud" is a psychological thriller distributed by A24 — recently released after a long delay due to the pandemic — that follows a palliative care nurse with a dangerous and violent obsession with her faith as she loses her grip on reality.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Glass’ sharp and bold direction. From the heart-stopping opening scene, the technical prowess engulfs and engages the viewer. From this point forward, we remain at her mercy.

Glass utilizes numerous visual elements to set the atmosphere, including distinct color grading and steady, controlled cinematography.

The meticulousness with which Glass selects her visual techniques is impressive: the shots are expertly framed and give the film a stylish and distinct look. Steady and handheld cameras are used interchangeably to reflect the tone of different scenes. Particular shots and scenes are color graded in creative and stylized ways to set unsettling moods. 

As the story progresses, the audience is subjected to increasingly violent imagery. Throughout this disturbing progression, Glass never loses her control over the story and the audience. She achieves striking effect in presenting these sudden images but remains disciplined in her pacing. 

Glass also makes strong use of Adam Janota Bzowski’s score, allowing the dissonant music to aptly accompany the grisly images on the screen. The sound design assists in creating an unnerving tone in numerous scenes. However, Glass never relies fully on the score, sometimes using silence to build tension.

The screenplay maintains a first-person perspective, often making use of unreliable voice-over narration. Glass handles these matters of perspective with skillful writing and directing, conveying the story carefully as it grows increasingly surreal.

Glass presents the surreal elements of the story effectively. While these events are consistently unsettling, they are never jarring or out of place. Her confidence behind the camera is clear from this bold approach, which is especially impressive from a debut director.

Morfydd Clark, who plays the title character, gives a performance of tremendous range. She utilizes complex acting techniques to convey her character, including a wide range of facial expressions, vocal inflections and physical movements. 

Clark carefully integrates small physical tics and subtle habits, making the character seem much more realistic. She also handles her character’s voice-over narration with captivating vocal work, convincingly selling each line.

Jennifer Ehle plays Amanda, Maud’s patient. She effectively conveys her lines and gives a convincing performance, but does not quite match the polished work of Clark. The two actresses go toe-to-toe in multiple scenes, exchanging intense dialogue in a riveting fashion. 

The film works as a character study and a profile of a psychological downward spiral. This format has been done effectively many times, whether it’s "Black Swan" or "Taxi Driver." "Saint Maud" takes clear influence from both of those films but still manages to feel fresh and original in its own style and narrative.

Glass’ directorial style finds its greatest strength in its builds and releases of tension. The film contains several sharp cuts at intense moments, only leading to additional higher-stakes builds of tension. This gradual increase of anxiety leads to a thrilling and shocking conclusion, which is sure to inspire discussions long after the credits roll.

"Saint Maud" is a deeply unnerving and finely wrought portrait of an unstable character. Glass achieves a terrific crescendo of violence, intensity and strangeness.

Rose Glass handles shocking imagery and a lurid story with confidence, suggesting a promising career ahead. This is a thought-provoking and disturbing film that grippingly bridges the gap between art and entertainment.


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