A Note on Perspective: Saint Maud

I finally watched 2019’s Saint Maud, written and directed by Rose Glass, last night and found myself totally spellbound. What passes here is not a review, but a short note on how the film employs Maud’s perspective. I will totally spoil the hell out of Saint Maud, so be warned.

Saint Maud, which tells the story of an end-of-life carer obsessed with saving her client’s soul, is one of the most tightly controlled perspective pieces I’ve ever seen. We open with Maud in prayer, and throughout we hear her half of her conversations with God (and, in a particularly memorable scene, God’s half, too). The voiceover might come at any moment — as she’s walking down the street, in her home, in her patient, Amanda’s, home — which keeps us rooted in Maud’s perception of events.

This perception becomes increasingly important as the movie continues. When she sleeps with someone she picks up at the bar and imagines crushing his sternum via heart compressions mid-coitus, we get flashes back to the opening scene — Maud sitting in a corner, a dead patient on a table, her hands covered in blood. This hallucination, during sex — the dude’s totally alive — tells us more about Maud’s mental history than almost any other moment: we already know she used to go by “Katie,” and that a patient died in her carer. Now we know how. (We don’t — we’ll never — know if it was accidental or not.)

This same flash, which we get several times in the movie — Maud sitting in a corner, looking up at the ceiling — also gives us the cockroach, which, with the God-speaking scene, we realize is God physicalized for Maud. The cockroach entered her life at the moment she needed It most, and she latched onto it. (We may even conclude that this first moment with the cockroach is Maud’s birth, or rebirth, when she leaves the name “Katie” behind.)

About the conclusion. As Maud tries to save Amanda’s soul one final time, and Amanda refutes ever feeling God (despite their shared orgasmic experience), Amanda suddenly transforms into a devil figure. Because every moment of revelation has been through Maud’s eyes, it’s impossible to know if what Maud sees here is real or not — your own relationship with religion, and your own taste in horror, is as likely to define your take on this scene as anything else.

The stunningly beautiful penultimate shot to the film, as Maud’s angelic wings expand amid her own self-immolation, is broken by the final shot of the film, Maud on fire and screaming. And, because the movie has thus far never cut away from her perspective, the more generous (to Maud) reading that her soul has transcended while her body is in torment doesn’t hold. The horror, for me, of this film is in those few final frames, in knowing how everything cracks apart for her, there at the end.

There’s so much of The Witch in this film — I can’t hear God speak and not think of Black Phillip — and a little bit of Kafka (for Rose Glass’s own comp titles, she lists some in this interview). As writers we can learn a lot about perspective from this piece, from how a single strong character can root us in the world of a movie or a narrative, how we can empathize with someone who may be disturbed but is also, plainly, suffering. And empathy, for me, is what the act of story is ultimately about.

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