Directed by Rose Glass
The absence of a functioning Arts Cinema in my vicinity has meant that I hadn’t managed to get to a live screening of a film I actually wanted to see until a few days before Lockdown No.2 began. And this highly impressive, unnerving debut was as fitting as I could have hoped. If ever the engulfment in the action and moods of a film added another dimension, it does here, maybe enhanced by the new unfamiliarity of going out to a cinema. An adventure in itself after so long. The luscious dark, the unaccustomed quiet, the smells… And overriding the usual aroma of popcorn were the whiffs of cleaning materials and a curiously strong hand cleanser which immediately brought a potent nasal flashback to the homemade poteen which I once enthusiastically necked in Hull over 40 years ago, in a flat not far from Larkin’s High Windows. Senses well-primed, I entered Screen 7 of The Empire, Sunderland…
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative care nurse, whose latest patient is famous avant garde American choreographer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) now immobilised and dying in the kind of large, dimly lit and mysterious old house we know well from the horror genre. Maud is revealed as a troubling mixture of modern efficiency and old-fashioned piety, decking her cheap bedsit with all manner of religious items and holding conversations with her god as if he’s a valued and admired friend.
Maud is in fact not her real name, as we learn when she runs into an acquaintance from her former life, where she was Kate, to whom, we gather via murky flashbacks, something VERY BAD happened at her previous job in a care home. We never find out what exactly, or even whether she was responsible or just a horrified witness. She’s adopted the new name, presumably after the Saint (aka Mathilda), a C10th queen of Germany known for her work among the poor and sick. It gradually becomes clear that the ecstatic St Teresa would have been a more appropriate choice, considering the increasingly queasy and quasi orgasmic effects of her joy in God. We’re inside her perceptions, as she seems to undergo many of the reputed experiences of the holy – the levitating, the visions, the ecstasy.
Her approach to Amanda is at first kindly-professional but increasingly more intimately friendly, as she begins to share her belief and her delight in her god’s manifestations with her. Amanda is sympathetic, and rather fascinated. But the relationship unravels when a load of bohemian friends arrive at Amanda’s house, including her lover, who is not just female, but black, and scornful of Maud and her attachment to Amanda. This prompts Maud’s embittered fervour to go into overdrive, turning to increasingly manic self-damaging ‘saint-like’ actions, mortifications of the flesh, which again, like the more joyful manifestations, we are sufficiently in Maud’s sensibilities to shudder at. This all culminates in a more shocking conversation with a god who this time responds, in an extremely creepy and malignly slo-mo version of … Welsh? Culminating in horror.
Scarborough is an uncannily good backdrop to all this. It’s terrifically photogenic, as seen in last year’s SCARBOROUGH by Barnaby Southcombe. Cheek by jowl with the bright, loud sleaziness of its amusement-arcaded front, the grubby alleyways and seamy pubs, is the pureness of its wide beaches and views over the sea, and on that nicer side of the bay that still harks back to the resort’s days of being a superior holiday and retirement area for the wealthier of Yorkshire’s people, the mystery and subliminal threat of the path up among shadowy trees that Maud takes to Amanda’s creepy, ill-lit old house.
While rife with tropes of the horror genre, this film has many other things going on. The complex relations between nurse and nursed is opened up – the interface between emotionally detached intimate physical caring and intimacy of a deeper kind, which is one of the triggers to Maud’s cracking up; sensual desire and a religion which purportedly frowns on it; loneliness – Maud’s grimy bedsit is one of the most depressing I’ve seen for a while, and her foray back into the world of ‘Kate’, when in charmless pubs she attempts to latch on to other’s friendships, is desperate. Intimacy of all kinds is under the microscope here, and friendship’s limits – Maud’s fervour is fascinating to Amanda, who on one level seems to be taken up by it, but as soon as the cosmopolitan pals arrive and she’s back in her real world again we see it for what it was – nothing but fascination and curiosity in another kind of life. The nurse, close to her employer as she may need to be, is still ultimately an under-stairs character, like the governess in Victorian fiction. To Amanda’s friends, Maud is a nobody. No wonder her damaged psyche seeks out a god.
Seen at Empire Cinema, Sunderland, October 28 2020