Harold and Maude (1971)

Directed by Hal Ashby


Everything about Harold and Maude, from the titular characters’ names to the gothic wealth of Harold’s family to the soundtrack, all make this film feel incredibly old fashioned.  It surprised me to learn that this film took place in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Based on the large, dark, empty home in which Harold hangs himself and the overcast, bleary mornings of one of the funerals he’s made a habit of attending, I would’ve guessed the setting was a small village in England, much like the beginning of An American Werewolf in London.

Even the way we’re introduced to Harold’s recurring suicide attempts (the hanging) is old-fashioned.  Later we will see him cut up his arms, shoot himself in the head, stab himself in the gut and drive his car off a cliff.  This is a film about a scarred boy whose inability to die mirrors his inability to live, which he is all too well aware of.

Harold and Maude is a cult favorite, and that makes sense.  It seems like a lot of cult films have a surprising amount of heart that becomes more evident after multiple viewings.  These films may be off putting at a first glance because it’s hard to look past whatever obscure or weird or challenging lens the film offers you.  I mean, I get why there would be controversy around this film.  It’s about a romance between a suicidal 20 year old boy and a 79 year old woman who gleefully challenges every rule and form of authority she encounters.  On the surface it’s easy to picture these characters as distasteful, both turning their backs on the world for various reasons.  But Harold’s suicidal thoughts are depicted as comical rather than tragic, and his dour outlook is more of a grumpy Garfield type of personality than something from The Machinist.  And Maude is so happy go lucky that it’s hard to be threatened by her behavior unless you’re the most puritanical of people.  These characters aren’t symptoms of society, they’re just the accumulation of their own experiences.

So the film gives you this somewhat innocent, heartwarming relationship drenched in images of death.  Harold and Maude first meet because they’re both regular attendees of funerals of people they never met, but based on Harold’s disposition, his distance from the newly deceased isn’t any different than his distance from even his mother.  In fact, Harold seems to look at the dead like celebrities because, based on his multiple suicide attempts, he wants to be them.

Maude is a no-nonsense kind of person.  She tells Harold not to hold onto anything too tightly.  She steals cars, drives too fast, and will even throw away a gift Harold gives her while calling it the best present she’s ever received.  Her eagerness to let go is reflected in one of the Cat Stevens songs that ushers the film along, “Miles From Nowhere,” with the lyric: “Lord my body has been a good friend/ But I won’t need it when I reach the end”

When Maude reaches out to Harold, it starts to feel like a decision in opposition to her stance on letting things go.  She’s very much a guardian angel of sorts, one of those characters who is tailor-made to help the protagonist out of his rut (i.e. the Manic Pixie Dream Girl).  And I suppose her decision to reach out to Harold only matters because he decides to reach back.

Harold’s and Maude’s relationship begins to work, I’d say, because it’s not supposed to work.  They know their time together is peculiar, not just because of who they are but because of what they do (in one scene they steal a tree, evade a police officer and plant it in the forrest).  Nothing about this adds up, but it works.  It also doesn’t make sense that Harold appears to kill himself on several occasions yet is always around to see another day.

That’s the part of this film that fascinated me the most, Harold’s successful but not successful suicides.  It’s a bit magical, and it would seem to suggest some unknowable power in the universe, but the story is clearly not about the ramifications of this power.  So it’s symbolic, right?

Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There is heavily grounded in reality, but it ends with the protagonist, Chance, literally walking on water.  In that case the film makes sure you know it’s realistic, but this sudden turn forces you to ask questions and analyze what the takeaway is.

Harold and Maude‘s instances of breaking down reality aren’t meant to make you see the film in a new context or assess what it means in regards to the film’s message.  Instead it just tells you something about Harold.  He and Maude exists in vacuums separate from reality and from the rest of the world in the film.  That’s probably why I thought this story took place in a completely different place and era.  Harold and Maude could exist everywhere because they don’t belong anywhere.

As their relationship develops, Harold’s mother organizes three separate dates for him to meet his wife.  Maude exists outside of any kind of rule or law, so it follows that the counterpoint, Harold’s mother, would inflict very specific rules on him.  It’s not just that she wants Harold to act his age and meet a girl, she wants Harold to get married right now.  He does the classic child to husband transition, in which there is always a culturally-familiar role in which to serve.

Harold’s form of rebellion is to kill or maim himself in front of these women.  In the first instance, Harold walks by, waves to the girl through the window, and then sets himself on fire.  The girl is mortified, and the mother is annoyed.  Then Harold walks into the room, wondering what went wrong.

In the next instance, Harold takes a step back and merely chops off his own hand, scaring the girl off, and on the third date, Harold performs a suicide ritual on himself.  In response, this girl, an aspiring actress, acts out the end of Romeo & Juliet, even referring to the “poison,” and kills herself as well.

After these three dates have all failed, Harold’s mother decides he should enlist in the army, like his one-armed uncle (who has a contraption constructed in which he pulls on a cord that helps him salute with his missing limb).  Maude assists Harold with a wild plan to get him out of this service.  Harold pretends to be so frighteningly excited with the idea of killing another person, and when they see Maude pretending to be a protestor, Harold pretends to try and kill her.  Of course, his military uncle is startled by this and must restrain him.  Then Maude falls through a hole in the ground, and it looks as though she has died.

But she hasn’t, just like Harold hasn’t died.  All these deaths that aren’t really deaths have a certain desensitizing effect on you.  It’s never clear how accessible death is or how meaningful it is.

Ultimately, Maude, on her 80th birthday, tells Harold that he has taken some sort of poison that will kill her.  Her plan, to leave her body behind, is well in line with her character, but Harold fights to keep her alive.  When she dies it’s a little startling because it didn’t feel entirely possible for someone to die after what we’ve seen.

I’m still not clear on what all these ‘deaths,’ are supposed to mean.  It felt like a reflection of Harold’s inability to live.  You could either see it as his inability to die equals his inability to live, or that each time he dies, he’s really dying and yet continues to do it anyway, like the pain of death is less than the pain of life.  Calling this a flirtation with death undersells his commitment to suicide.  He’s married to this.  It’s the most meaningful relationship in his life, at least until Maude shows up.

There’s a single shot in the film that seems to say everything we need to know about Maude.  She has a similar familiarity with death as Harold, but we don’t see her killing herself over and over again.  In fact, when she does, it works, unlike him.  Instead, Maude has a singular plan, one she sticks to all the way until the end.  Near that end, Harold notices a numbered tattoo on her wrist, one that is iconographic of the Holocaust.  We’re never told anything about Maude’s past other than her saying that she emigrated to America at some point, but this is all we need to know.  She has seen unimaginable horrors, more than Harold.  It’s this recognition that makes Harold and us understand her, and it’s never commented on in this moment or at any time later in the film.

After Maude’s death, Harold drives his sports car (which he constructed into a mock hearse, resembling the hearse he drove before his mother got rid of it) off a cliff and to what looks like his death.  Based on what we’ve seen, there’s no reason to think this attempt worked, but it feels very final, so there’s a part of you that thinks it did.  But then the camera pans up and there Harold stands alone.

He pulls out a banjo that Maude encouraged him to learn, and he lightly dances away while playing a jaunty tune.  Driving the car off the ledge, though with suicidal intentions, served more to destroy the car that represented Harold’s dire outlook.

He has shed that baggage, and now he travels the world playing music.  Or something like that.  The point is that he has decided to embrace life, carrying with him nothing concrete, but everything Maude taught him.  The best things in life are often invisible, but that banjo looks pretty sweet.


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