Producers: Oliver Kassman and Andrea Cornwell   Director: Rose Glass   Screenplay: Rose Glass   Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer, Lily Knight, Marcus Hutton, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Carl Prekopp, Jonathan Milshaw and Noa Bodner   Distributor: A24 Films

Grade: B

There are distinct elements of horror to writer-director Rose Glass’s debut feature, but “Saint Maud” is essentially an unsettling psychological study of a woman driven to extremes by religious mania.  Stylish and strongly acted, it’s both provocative and disturbing.

Kate (Morfydd Clark) was a nurse at St. Afra’s hospital in an unnamed English coastal town where she suffered some sort of breakdown; the effect is briefly glimpsed, and it’s alluded to in later conversation with her erstwhile co-writer Joy (Lily Knight), but precisely what happened is never fully explained.  It caused her to leave her post and go into private service, but also either caused a  religious awakening or intensified a faith that already existed.  In either case, Kate now calls herself Maud and lives an ascetic life, awaiting a divine call to the mission she’s certain God intends for her to fulfill.

Maud believes she’s found her purpose when she’s hired as caregiver to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a dancer-choreographer stricken with terminal cancer; she believes that her mission is to convert Amanda, a hedonistic atheist who continues to smoke and drink despite her condition and hosts soirees with her wild friends, including Carol (Lily Frazer), a sultry girl whom she pays for sex.

Maud is repelled at this, but performs her functions—preparing meals, leading her patient in exercise—nonetheless, and is heartened when Amanda occasionally seems interested in her invitations to pray and meditate.  But it eventually becomes obvious that Amanda and her friends are merely toying with Maud, mocking her religiosity and abstemious lifestyle.  Maud eventually snaps, leading to her dismissal. 

It’s then that Maud’s obsession takes full hold, causing her to become more and more isolated in her dingy apartment.  She does, however, occasionally wander outside, in one tension-filled scene starting a conversation with Amanda’s new caregiver that suggests she might be contemplating violence.  Ultimately, though, she surrenders to her extreme beliefs. 

Seized by ecstasy that she feels in physical terms (in one shot she actually levitates, or thinks she does), she begins to hear the voice of God speaking directly to her in a foreign tongue; the messages are accompanied by shots of a large cockroach crawling around her room, presumably the personification of the deity.  (Full disclosure: the final credits identify the insect playing the part as Nancy.)  And she undergoes a transformation in which she embraces what she sees as her true mission, taking on a persona in which she delivers a final public statement to the secular world.

That denouement (which, curiously, recalls that of the Shamassian brothers’ “Retaliation,” though the motive behind it is very different) is at once a shocking and yet predictable outcome of Katie/Maud’s religion-induced delusions.  In Ben Fordesman’s luscious cinematography, it’s also visually intoxicating, a culmination of camerawork that throughout the film has a hypnotic, artsy vibe.  Paulina Rzeszowska’s production design is similarly precise, distinguishing between the richly burnished interiors of Amanda’s mansion and the drabness of Maud’s flat while capturing the stark coldness of the town encompassing them both. Mark Towns’s editing complements Glass’s studiedly unhurried approach, while the score by Adam Janota Bzowski adds to the mood of brooding unease. 

The supporting players in “Saint Maud” are fine—Fraser is seductive as the teasing Carol—but the film largely depends on the performances of the two leads, and they’re exceptional.  Clark conveys the impatient devotion of the fervent title character with remarkable conviction, while Ehle nails the careless bravado of a woman who knows she hasn’t much more time.  Their scenes together are a model of collaboration with a filmmaker with a distinctive vision and the skill to realize it. 

“Saint Maud” will not be to all tastes.  But the more adventurous will find it a mesmerizingly unnerving portrait of belief gone off the rails.