Criterion Project #22: HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)

Harold and Maude

Spine #608

Year: 1971

Director: Hal Ashby

It’s been a minute since I last watched Harold and Maude and after this viewing I’ve come to the conclusion that it is perhaps the most anachronistic film of 1970s American cinema. The Cat Stevens soundtrack, the distinct fashion, the feeling of detachment comfortably nestled next to disillusionment – it all feels unmistakably ’70s. It’s been several hours since the credits rolled and Cat Stevens is still echoing around in my mind, and I’m perfectly ok with it.

As romance films go, this is just my style. It’s a film about connection and awakening just as much as it is about traditional romantic love. The synopsis from IMDB:

Young, rich, and obsessed with death, Harold finds himself changed forever when he meets lively septuagenarian Maude at a funeral.

God bless the information available at the Internet Movie Database, but they’ve missed the point yet again. This only bothers me because of what a ubiquitous resource it is for the general public as well as cinephiles (though at this point I prefer to check film ratings on Letterboxd quite a bit of the time).

We first meet Harold (Bud Cort) in the process of pretending to hang himself in the living room, much to the annoyance of his mother who’s seen upwards of 15 of these “attempts” from her son. His hobbies include attending funerals, staging fake suicides, and driving around in a hearse. From that description it would be simple to infer Harold is obsessed with death, but let’s dig a little deeper.

While attending a funeral one afternoon an older woman attempts to get his attention, eventually settling in the church pew behind Harold so she can offer him some black licorice (black being a recurring motif for much of the first half of the film). The woman will turn out to be Maude (the exquisite Ruth Gordon), a deliriously unhinged free spirit who blazes a path into Harold’s life, changing the course of it forever.

But Maude’s appearance doesn’t occur until the film has established the state of Harold’s world. His mother, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles), is a wealthy middle-aged woman with no active concept of reality. She realizes something is different about Harold but places the blame on his aloofness, never once attempting to talk to him about why he’s staging suicides specifically for her. She holds fancy dinner parties and entertains a trio of potential suitors for Harold via a proto-computer dating service, but at no point discusses any of it with him. Instead of confronting Harold about his behavior, she sends him to a psychiatrist and to his Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), an Army General who, according to Mrs. Chasen, was General MacArthur’s right-hand man during WWII. Victor hilariously glorifies the benefits of military service and the honor of battle while his shirt sleeve hangs empty at his side. His injury is never expressly attributed to the war, but despite the disability his blind allegiance is hilariously displayed when his empty sleeve is revealed to be attached to a pulley on his opposite shoulder which lifts the sleeve into a perfect military salute position.

It’s all very performative and desperately bleak. It’s as if these people refuse to loosen their grasp on what they’re supposed to be despite the circumstances of their lives – a soldier loves their country and defends it at any cost, never wavering in loyalty, and a wealthy young man socializes, drives fancy cars, and settles down with a worthy bride even though he’s shown no signs of wanting the banalities of conformism. There’s no value placed on individualism. Other young men in Harold’s shoes behave a certain way and thus, so should Harold. But that life doesn’t fit him, like the humongous neck ties he sports throughout the film.

It’s all very dark and very absurd, which makes Maude’s arrival such a miracle to both Harold and the viewing audience. Possibly my favorite line from her is “Greet the dawn with a breath of fire!” And Maude is every bit a breath of fire.

At first Harold isn’t sure what to make of her. She’s chatty and direct, often spewing long stream-of-consciousness philosophies about the frivolity of modern society and its governing rules. In fact, she blithely steals cars and shuns pretty much every law in the book. And did I mention she’s only days shy of her 80th birthday?

This further feeds into the many taboos at this film’s core. Forbidden romance, death, and suicide are the most prominently featured themes, like a simplified, perverse Romeo and Juliet. In the eyes of the film there is no such taboo. Ashby means for the audience to empathize with these two and it doesn’t take long for us to understand them and to root for their relationship to blossom.

But in the end it isn’t entirely about a romance between two people. Harold isn’t obsessed with death, he’s searching for what it means to LIVE. Most people might turn to material things, like his mother, or spiral into drugs and/or alcohol in their search. Harold isn’t interested in any of that. In one humorous bit Maude offers Harold a drink, to which Harold responds that he doesn’t drink. Maude assures him the alcohol is organic and therefor it’s ok to drink. Organic is defined in the dictionary as “relating to or derived from living matter”. So you see, there’s no element to Maude that stinks of artificiality – even her booze is made from living things.

Slowly but surely Harold learns to shed his inhibitions through their budding relationship. There are many references to flowers throughout the film, no doubt a metaphor for the blossoming life beginning to seep out of Harold. I’ve seen Maude described as a manic-pixie-dream-grandma and at first I wanted to argue it, because it seems the term would deprive Maude of her two biggest moments in the film, specifically her final act. I won’t go into spoilers, necessarily, because the resolution of the film is somehow both heartbreaking and powerfully uplifting at the same time, but I will say the ramifications of it are purely designed to guide Harold towards a path for the direction his life will take. While presented as a captivating character and a unique cinematic creation, Maude is, in the end, a necessary catalyst that Harold’s life requires. But I could just as easily make the argument for Harold’s importance to this stage of Maude’s life as well. There’s a peacefulness to the end of the film despite the actions that take place, which is a testament to Hal Ashby and the effectiveness of the script, and of course the two lead actors.

The film feels like such a time capsule of a particular time in U.S. history. I can envision a double-bill of Harold And Maude playing alongside The Graduate (1967) as stories about uncertainty of the world around you and finding your place in it. There are bittersweet moments that will linger with you long after this film has ended, no doubt, but I know I’ll cherish the spirit of these two unique souls and what they meant to each other, even if only for a brief time. I’m not sure most of us get to experience that, even for a fleeting moment in our lives. Harold and Maude is the perfect reminder to keep an eye out for it, and that lesson will remain with me forever. A remarkable film.

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