Visions of Saint Maud

As with so many other cultural events during 2020, Saint Maud, the directorial debut by Rose Glass, fell victim to the pandemic. Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, UK and American distribution rights were quickly picked up and the film was meant to have been issued on general release in Spring 2020, after being specially commended at the BFI London Film Festival. It did – eventually – receive a limited release in October 2020 and was issuef on DVD and streaming services in February 2021, but this is an intelligent psychological horror movie that has not received as large an audience it deserves, despite high praise from a number of critics.

This review – unsurprisingly – is concerned with a particular set of Blakean themes that run through the film. The plot is intriguing in its mundane, everyday qualities that hint at the potential terrors of everyday life: we are introduced to Maud (played by Morfydd Clark) in a brief, unexplained incident as she sits, almost comatose, beside a patient who has clearly suffered a violent death. From here, the story segues immediately to her more ascetic existence as a hospice nurse, one who has recently converted to Catholicism and is now caring for a former dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Filmed in Scarborough, the movie depicts the soul-crushing ennui of many English seaside towns with little in the way of relief from bitter existence – places where too many people turn to drugs or fleeting sexual euphoria to try and escape. There are subtle hints that this was the kind of life Maud (who has changed her name from Katie) lived prior to her current position, but she now obsesses over her faith in god – an obsession that all too easily transposes itself onto Amanda. Disapproving of Amanda’s relics of a bohemian lifestyle – in particular her lesbian relationship with Carol (Lily Frazer) who she pays for sex – Maud soon oversteps her boundary and, after a pettily humiliating incident, is banished from her post.

The film is a brilliant three-way relationship between Maud, Amanda and Glass as writer and director, with excellent walk-on parts for other characters such as Frazer and a former friend, Joy (Lily Knight). It is telling that, with very minor exceptions, this is a movie that seeks to explore women’s obsessions and desires more or less entirely through female eyes. Indeed, the only significant man in the movie is one recorded in absentia – William Blake.

Blake is introduced in passing, as a single volume on a bookshelf that is generally more concerned with earthly matters. A number of critics have noted the signficance of Amanda’s gift of the book – a copy of Morton Paley’s 1978 Phaidon edition of Blake’s prints, but this first glimpse of the Romantic is subtly significant: the book is literally off centre, and when Amanda gives it to Maud it is of less significance to her than Maud believes. Instead of being the beginning of some deep bond between the two women, this is a casual – almost careless – offloading of soemthing that means very little to the dancer who is now dying of cancer.

As with so many things, however, Maud completely misreads the importance of this act. Immersed in the shallows of her religious experience, with little to guide her as she heads out towards deeper waters, she pores over Blake’s images. We are given delightful dead ends – not least the fleeting glimpse of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, which of course intimates another psychological horror, Francis Dolarhyde becoming the Satanic entity in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. It is, however, the colour print of The Good and Evil Angels, one clothed in fire, the other shrouded in blue, fighting over a child who is symbolic of the human soul in this struggle of contraries. Such is this image that, later in the film, we see that Maud has cut it out with several other of the paintings to create a shrine to her religious monomania, and it becomes doubly significant to the terrifying final frame of the movie (which involves a spoiler below).

Blake, then, is a regular pulse throughout the film. An amusing reaction by some commentators is that it is this engagement with Blake which leads Maud into her deep obsession, but in truth Maud doesn’t really understand Blake at all. What she fails to perceive is that she controls the doors of perception, and it becomes clear at an early stage that the terrifying, disturbing elements of the movie are distortions caused by Maud’s own senses: if only she could cleanse them, instead of being trapped inside herself she would perceive the universe as it really is – infinite. This is revealed in a stunning scene in which God talks directly to Maud in Welsh, the language of her own unconscious; instead of recognising that the divine image is inside her, she projects it outwards onto the universe and thus obeys a false, Urizenic deity.

That this can only end in tragedy is evidenced by the fatal conclusions of the film. When she witnesses Amanda become a devil, we are not seeing the debate between a Blakean angel and devil but instead Maud’s own hallucinations that cannot distinguish reality from fantasy – and which have, ultimately, nothing to do with the power of imagination. As Glass has indicated in various interviews, the last scene in which Maud, having doused herself in acetone which she then sets alight, witnesses herself as an angel is entirely wish fulfilment and false perception. The film ends with a truly horrific, split second scene in which we see Maud as she truly is – screaming in intense agony as she burns to death, a kind of reversal of the final frames of another fascinating horror movie, Midsommar, in which the tormented heroine finally breaks into a monstrous grimace as she realises she has come home.

This terrible finale is an inverted apotheosis: instead of becoming the heavenly angel, Maud is revealed as the flaming devil she has unconsciously revered throughout the movie. It is clear that Katie – the pleasure-seeking, hedonistic woman who changed her name to Maud – had never disappeared but was, rather, simply repressed. Had Maud been able to come to terms with the devil inside her, rather than simply seeking to crush it with the suffocating presence of a false god, then she would have spared herself the frightening, pitiful immolation of her own, perverted energies. As Blake had written in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.” Incapable of seeing herself as she truly is, Maud has restrained Katie and, inevitably, the return of the repressed is monstrous horror rather than a marriage of the divine and the diabolical.

Blakespotting, February 2021

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud

The passing of an era was marked at the end of the month by the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, described by Global Times as “the last great poet of the Beat Generation who helped to establish the counter-culture movement”. Born in 1919, Felinghetti was famous for setting up City Lights bookstore and publisher, through which he issued key books of the Beats – most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 – and he was a key thinker in the political and moral stance of the counter-culture over the coming decades. He was also, with Ginsberg, a keen enthusiast of Blake, becoming involved in Ginsberg’s 1970s project to record a number of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was recorded in 1972 singing “Ah! Sunflower”, “The Garden of Love” and “The Nurse’s Song” with John Fahey, and in an interview in 2016 he explained the importance of Blake’s poems to Ginsberg’s own works.

While exhibitions have been a rare occurrence in the age of pandemic lockdowns, one such event in February showed the ways in which Blake’s art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide’s Future Past opened on 11 February at V.O Curations, the first of its exhibitions to mark the new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide who studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, has been artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, he recounts how for his postgraduate studies he had to select an artist for his presentation:

I selected William Blake and I am so happy that I did. His emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology.

Future Past is open until 20 March and selections of his work can be seen in the Steve Turner online solo exhibition, Cosmic Memory.

Another cultural casualty of the COVID has, of course, been the film industry. Saint Maud, a British psychological horror movie that follows a hospice nurse, Maud, and her obsession with a former dancer in her care, received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was slated for general release in April and May 2020. It was eventually shown on some screens in the UK in October 2020, but only received a limited US release in the USA at the end of January 2021, the same date that it appeared on DVD in Britain. Although it was well-received in the UK, American reviews were more mixed throughout February: the Chicago Tribune that some would appreciate the religious themes in the film “more than others”, while the Boston Globe recommended it even for those fans of horror whose tastes ran in a different direction. The movie’s difference in part stems from the work of writer/director Rose Glass, and performances by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, and the Blakean connection is a gift of a book of Blake’s drawings made by the dancer Amanda (Ehle) to Maud (Clark). We’ll be following up with a review shortly.

One thoughtful article to appear during February was Pete Yeo’s ecocritical meditation on an evergreen and pleasant land for Finding Blake. First published by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Yeo’s work was adapted to make explicit the ways that he draws on Blake stanzas from Milton a Poem – more famously known as the hymn “Jerusalem” – for an understanding of the changing climate of Britain’s evergreen plant life. The long view of the biodiversity of the British Isles does, of course, show us a land which was not always so green and pleasant, not least when it was covered in ice age glaciers, yet contemplating the deep time of life in this corner of the Atlantic also leads Yeo to reflect on the comparisons between spirituality and unified physics, most aptly caught for him in Blake’s lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower