Harold and Maude (1971)

29 Aug

For a long time, I avoided “Harold and Maude.” It’s habitually described as a “cult comedy,” occasionally as the “ultimate” cult comedy, and my experience with cult comedies has been very hot and cold. And so, despite the critical acclaim and the recommendations from people I know who love it, I avoided it — mostly from fear that it wouldn’t live up to its reputation. Now I know the truth: To dismiss “Harold and Maude” as a mere cult film by labeling it as such does a disservice to what is surely one of the more subversive and yet most hopeful and genuine films of its era.

Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a young man with a serious obsession with death. His increasingly theatrical re-enactments of suicide attempts annoy his mother rather than elicit any concern from her. When not planning his faux fatalities, Harold passes time attending funerals. It is at a funeral where he first meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a near-octogenarian who shares his preoccupation with death, but for a different reason. At first, Harold dismisses Maude, and who can blame him? She’s disruptive and inappropriate, she might be crazy, and — no doubt the worst offense to Harold — she intrudes on his solitude. She also, as it turns out, is a relentless car thief, having swiped a priest’s Volkswagen after a funeral. Later, when Maude tries to catch Harold’s attention at a graveside service, he acts aloof. It’s only when she offers him a ride home in his own car that Harold acquiesces, albeit out of necessity.

When Harold tells her matter-of-factly that she is, in fact, driving his car, she gleefully tells him “Well then, you should take me home!”

What follows, how their relationship develops and changes, how Harold’s relationship with his mother changes, is all so charmingly developed and fulfilling it borders on unbelievable. Even those who’ve never seen this film are probably aware of the boundaries the titular relationship pushes, and the idea may be unpleasant. But believe me when I say that all but the most hardened of cynics will be won over by the end of this film.

If your heart doesn't melt at this exact point in the film, you may want to see a doctor; you might not be human.

Apart from the obvious, then, what’s all the fuss? The way this film turns expected age roles and the concept of — or should I say obsession with? — youth culture on its head is possibly more subversive than the May-December relationship between Harold and Maude. Harold is a prisoner of his youth, kept captive by his distant yet controlling mother, deemed unfit for her society and unable to break from the gilded cage of his childhood home. He sees no point to life and so becomes obsessed with death. Maude, in the late autumn of her life, also considers death, but not morbidly. Her preoccupation would be more fitting if it played as worry, but it doesn’t; she dreams of becoming a sunflower, she tells Harold — she dreams of becoming other.

Maude, through her wisdom and experience, knows the benefit of a joyful, open, free-spirited life. Her years have not dampened her desires, perhaps she is even more attuned to her wants in her older age. Maude seems to understand her role in the world, which gives her belief about the strength of an individual fighting a small fight weight. Her character rejects our preconceived notions of senior citizens, their beliefs about the world, their usefulness, even their allure. We are undeniably attracted to her. Harold, despite his beauty and perceived vitality, is unappealing. His obsession with death as personal expression is morbid, his personality bland, his talents obscured and his desires unknown, even to himself. He is a shell of a human. And we see how misplaced is our societal fascination with youth.

Luckily for Harold, he is not impervious to the influence of one such as Maude. Through her, he is able to reclaim his youth, and it is an astounding thing. Harold blossoms, and we get to watch it happen through the increasingly antagonistic episodes with his mother, the hilarious means by which he submarines his “computer dates,” and finally through his complete disregard for how his relationship with Maude fits into anyone else’s worldview, even that of the viewers.

Litmus test sequence. It'd be interesting to poll people as to what they felt at this point in the film.

That the film so subtly breaks the fourth wall is another of its little subversions. To my memory, there is only one instance where it is clear Harold is reacting for the viewers’ benefit. But there are many other, smaller touches which serve to make the audience feel as if it is in on a secret. We see some of the aspects of Harold and Maude’s relationship that they do not see, effectively making us, as viewers, a third participant in the love affair. Hal Ashby’s touch here is masterful. The technique could easily be overplayed and backfire, creating distance, but this is not the case. The instances are fleeting and special and succeed immensely.

While the film is a beautiful exploration of life and death and love, it also manages to be fantastically funny, and there is another subversion. It is not right, somehow, that such an emotional, genuinely moving film should also be so, so very funny. Admittedly, the jokes are of a darker sort than usual, but there are plenty of real moments of hilarity, quick and clever one-liners and at least one protracted scene of humor of the uncomfortable variety that is perfectly performed. Cort and Gordon rightly deserve the lion’s share of praise for their outstanding work in this film, but the laughs are made possible through excellent support, notably from Vivian Pickles as Harold’s long-suffering mother, Charles Tyner as Harold’s Strangelovian uncle, Ellen Geer as the scene-stealing Sunshine Dore and Eric Christmas as the preoccupied priest.

I understand completely the reasoning behind deeming “Harold and Maude” a cult comedy. It’s an unconventional tale, with quite black humor, quirky characters, an attention to detail Wes Anderson would envy, and one-liners destined to be quoted by discerning movie buffs. But dooming this beautiful film to the same category as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a real travesty. Never has a film about death conveyed so much about truly living, and a rare gem such as this deserves greater than cultish company. Four stars out of four.

“Harold and Maude”: Rated PG. Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer, Eric Christmas, and G. Wood. Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Colin Higgins. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo. Original music by Cat Stevens.

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One Response to “Harold and Maude (1971)”

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  1. Harold and Maude – Required Viewing | waldina - June 24, 2014

    […] Harold and Maude (1971) […]

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