Harold and Maude may not have appealed to audiences when it was first released in 1971 but it has since become a cult classic held close to the heart of many film lovers. The strange yet simple tale follows the ultimate odd couple: Harold, a young man obsessed with death, and 79 year old Maude, an eccentric with a lust for life. These two apparent opposites fuse a tender and beautiful friendship which forms the glittering heart of this film that explores themes of alienation and existentialism.
Harold is an awkward young man who drives a hearse, stages mock suicides and attends funerals for amusement. His mother does not seem to understand him, nor make much of an effort to, being concerned mainly with surface appearances and the façade of normalcy. She attempts to set him up on blind dates and strives to ignore him. Harold’s life is fairly sombre and without meaning until he spots Maude at a funeral he has crashed. When he sees her at yet another funeral, Maude takes the opportunity to introduce herself and sows the first seeds of their friendship.
The performances in the film are fairly simple, yet engaging. Although he was rarely cast as a leading man in subsequent films, Bud Cort delivers a fantastic performance as Harold, drawing both laughs and compassion from his audience. The story is at once touching and darkly humourous as viewers are simultaneously presented with seemingly opposite views of life, the dark and the beautiful. For instance, while Harold enjoys watching cars being destroyed in a junk yard, Maude revels in nature and has no qualms with liberating trees from public property. Harold’s obsession with death and oblivion seem to stem from the fact that he has no stake in this world, and feels no personal connection to anyone around him. Maude is able to curtail Harold’s obsession for destruction by showing him the beauty of nature and the fulfillment life can offer when lived with vitality.
This being said the film carries with it a very existentialist perspective. Maude constantly reminds Harold that all in life is transitory, enjoy it while you can, but never trick yourself into thinking that you have true ownership of anything in this realm. Not much is revealed about Maude’s past in the film other than her recollections of being involved in social protests and the fleeting glance Harold and the audience is able to catch of a Auschwitz ID number tattooed on her forearm. Maude clearly has a history and allows Harold to see that if he is willing he can create a meaningful future.
If you have yet to see this American film classic, I suggest you correct that unfortunate condition!