“Well, if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things now. With that in mind, I’m not against collecting stuff.”
‘Harold and Maude’, directed by Hal Ashby in 1971, is a dark, subversive American romantic comedy. Bud Cort plays Harold Chasen, a young man who lives with his mother, played by Vivian Pickles, and seems obsessed with death. Throughout the film he stages ever more elaborate suicides to unsettle his family and the prospective girlfriends his mother encourages him to meet. He has a habit of gate-crashing the funerals of strangers and, whilst doing so, he meets an elderly woman called Maude, a free-spirited holocaust survivor played by Ruth Gordon, who shares the same hobby. The pair develop an unusual and unlikely romantic relationship, but ultimately Chasen is forced to confront the reality of suicide when Maude decides she doesn’t want to turn eighty. It’s a weird, melancholic film with a thread of pitch-black comedy. The age difference between Chasen and Maude is clearly the factor that separates this from other romantic comedies, but the film focuses on the odd old-before-his-time quality of Chasen coupled with the mischievous eternal youth of Maude. It plays on the ideas of mortality and innocence, and Ashby creates a world in which, despite the taboo-busting romance, the eccentric characters feel like the ones surrounding Harold and Maude. For me the stand out performance in this film was Chasen’s mother: uptight, blind to her son’s troubled mental state, often immune to his attempts at shocking her. It’s a film that gives you’re the feeling you’ve entered a different universe, but one that through the performances, staging and even the Cat Stevens soundtrack, seems entirely consistent.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s subversive and odd to the point of uncomfortable, but it’s part of a wide range of movies that pushed back against the Hollywood studio system. I’d watch in a double bill with the equally subversive ‘Le souffle au coeur’.