I was confirmed a Catholic. With this sacrament, you take up a saint’s name, so that you may lead your life according to the way they may have led theirs. And so, I chose St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. A martyr for Christ, symbolically associated with an ax because of his death from one. Technically, all Catholics should aspire to sainthood, and there are certain criteria that must be met before canonization. But these demands will seem horrific to just about anyone, so much so that writer-director Rose Glass made her debut film Saint Maud all about it.
The life of a saint must inevitably begin with death. And for Katie (Morfydd Clark), it begins with her failure to save one of her patients. It’s not apparent how she failed, but Glass lets us in on a few disturbing details dribbled with blood. Some might associate blood with death, but for Katie, it represents an opportunity for her to be washed clean of her old identity, renewed with a purpose that is too great for the world to ever understand. A purpose christened under her new name, Maud. However, she does not merely convert herself into Catholicism, a harsh ascetic lifestyle. She goes a step further as if to suggest that God’s grace can ravage someone whole, cutting off all their connections to reality and the world at large.
She only makes one exception. As a private palliative care nurse, Maud becomes responsible for a terminally ill patient named Amanda with her new work gig. And yet, with Maud’s newly founded faith, she aspires to the heights of heaven. She hopes to not only relieve Amanda’s suffering but to save her soul and the task proves difficult. Amanda’s hedonism could not be any more different from Maud’s spiritual philosophy. She patronizes every one of Maud’s efforts with pet names like “little savior”, but it does not seem clear to Maud that she is being mocked. Her naiveté clouds her better judgment. Everything seems harmless enough until Amanda brings a woman over for the night. And all hell breaks loose under the guise of Christian morals.
Clark shines the brightest as our little savior, tiptoeing the lines between our shared sympathy and terror of her. In some of Maud’s loneliest scenes, where she spites God for having chosen this difficult path for her, Clark asks us to come close with our empathy in hand. But just before we get any chance to reach out to her, our empathy slips. Maud becomes totally distant, as she sinks so deep within her fanaticism that we only see the consequences of her supposedly virtuous actions in real-time. For her, suffering has this way of illuminating the path to salvation, to God and His promises. It also has this way of seeming sexual.
It’s such an original idea, this connection made between religious ecstasy and sex. Unfortunately, Glass does not allow us to explore these ideas any further than necessary in Saint Maud’s tight 80-minute runtime. Believe me, I am a proponent of “less is more”, especially in this age of maximal blockbusters. But there comes a point when it is possible to truncate your thematic ideas at the hands of narrative efficiency. Glass suggests deeper depths with her debut, but the waters run far too shallow for me to dive any further.
If only we could have explored Maud’s relationship with Amanda. At times, it seems so perfectly innocent. Maud has this loving attention towards Amanda’s needs, almost child-like with her simple sensibility towards things. But once Amanda invites a woman over for sexual favors, Maud turns for the worst. Whether it is for jealousy or homophobic bigotry, Glass does not make it apparent to audiences. And before we can even think of our own interpretations, Maud is cast out of her job permanently.
There are some darker sexual elements that come into play later in Saint Maud, but by then, they only confuse my understanding of Maud. They do not have much bearing at all in those final minutes. And consequently, they feel so isolated that I cannot give them much importance if Glass does not either. Maud has a mysterious past. I appreciate that audiences won’t be given all the answers. But I need something to ground myself in her life, to really empathize with her. Clark works her hardest, and yet I find that the story takes on this clinical direction that saps anything of substance and meaning. It makes me question if Glass really cares for Maud as a character. And honestly, I find that question more haunting than anything shown here. – Daniel Hrncir
Saint Maud is now playing in select theaters. The film stars Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, and Lily Frazer.