Harold and Maude

I went into this film really wanting to like it. Perhaps admitting that is akin to admitting a strong a priori bias, and perhaps I should add that I go into most films wanting to like them. But I probably went into Harold and Maude wanting to like it more than most because the premise itself intrigued me. In the film, you have a young man obsessed with death fall in love with an old woman obsessed with life. There’s a sense of existentialist sweetness written right into the premise. When I combine that with the knowledge that this is a Hal Ashby film, and that he’s a director whose muted sense of black humor combined with satirical wit I innately adore, and I not only really wanted to like it, but suspected I will. But at some point during the viewing I realized that the film simply wasn’t living up to my expectations or its own potential.

The plot is simple and involves Harold (Bud Cort) as a young man who is, indeed, obsessed with death. The film opens with him hanging himself in home after putting on a Cat Stevens album. His mother (Vivian Pickles) walks in, only to chide him for something that, apparently, he does all the time. So Harold isn’t dead, but doesn’t really bother to live until he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an older (almost 80-year-old) woman who, like Harold, has a penchant for attending funerals. The two become fast friends as Maude begins teaching Harold how to live and enjoy life. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother is still trying to mold him into a life of normality, setting up dates for her son, which Harold inevitably ends up wrecking with his “suicides”. But Harold eventually does decide to marry, but his choice of wife is none other than Maude herself.

Like most of Ashby’s 70s films, Harold and Maude is an extremely intimate effort. As with most intimate films it relies on the strength of its reduced cast, and although Ashby typically had a knack with getting the best out of his actors, both of his leads somewhat let him down here. The biggest problem with Bud Cort is that his character is so dry there wasn’t much he could do with him. But it doesn’t help that he’s so blank-faced through most of the film. Supposedly, we should believe that he’s changed by the end of the film, but I don’t think you would ever know it looking at him. While he gets a couple of emotional scenes, they ultimately can’t help but ring hollow.

Ruth Gordon fairs better, but, likewise, I can’t tell if it’s because she has the more vivacious character of if it’s something she’s actually doing to add anything to it. I mean, really, how do you dislike an 80-year-old woman who’s so joyous about life? But that innate likability is precisely part of the problem as it feels like Ashby and co. felt like they didn’t really have to do anything particular to achieve our sympathies. The result is a film that too often feels perfunctory. It doesn’t help that Ashby decides to drag out unfunny jokes (or somewhat funny jokes) to the point they become tiresome. One example is the scene in which the pair is fleeing a policeman, and Ashby has them stop not once, but three times and take off again.

Likewise, Harold’s suicides present the dilemma that, after the first one, it’s impossible for the audience to be “shocked” by any of his subsequent attempts. Without the shock, all that’s left is humor, which is typically provided by Harold’s mother’s chiding of him to just stop it, but that in itself becomes unfunny after the first or second attempts. Much could be said for Harry’s dates which he also continues to ruin by performing his suicide acts either in front of them (like chopping off his hand), or in the background (like setting himself on fire). At least Ashby has the sense to mix this up for one take in which an actress takes Harold’s seppuku performance as just that (an act) and decides to show off her own (poor) acting skills as Juliet.

Perhaps I should say, though, that the film is less bad as it’s just underachieving. Ashby is one of those directors who was effortlessly able to achieve a unique tone with his films—a kind of quiet absurdism that resonated against the zeitgeist of the early-to-mid 70s. Ashby said that he intended the film to be a metaphor for the sense of purposelessness plaguing the youth of America during the time, and the film does seem to capture something silently horrific about that sense of emptiness, that oppressive weight in which one might feel more comfortable (or alive) by being dead. Harold himself says that this started when he had nearly died once and observed his mother swoon as she was told the news, and from that day forward he seemed to feel most loved when he was thought dead.

In that sense, Maude is a potent study in contrast. A brief scene near the end reveals she has the tattoo of a Jewish prisoner. Ashby doesn’t linger on this (and, in fact, never bothers to explain it), but what it suggests is that Maude is a character who is lived so close to real death that she’s learned the true value of life. Harold, on the other hand, is a character who’s only been able to play at being dead to feel wanted and loved. It’s only appropriate, then, that it takes Harold learning to love, and witnessing the death of that love, in order to live. But if there’s a problem with this scenario it’s primarily in that Maude seems like a character too comfortable with herself to get too much out of the relationship, and it’s hard to accept that her suicide from any kind of logical narrative or character perspective.

One interesting thing about Harold’s suicides (even if they aren’t all that funny) is the fact that they are not staged as being fake. Rather, if it weren’t for the fact that Harold kept appearing in the film afterwards, they would appear as if they were real. Yet, Harold also carries them out on a grandly visual scale, with hangings, and blood-soaked bathrooms, and setting himself on fire. This is contrasted with Maude’s own suicide that carried out with a kind of nonchalance, and it’s telling that Maude’s relating of her choice to Harold is the only moment in the film where Harold shows any kind of genuine anger or fear or concern. So, essentially, the film contrasts the grandly acted display of death with the much more discretely real acceptance of death.

But, in the end, I can’t help return to the idea that all feels much too easy and much too shallow given the wonderful premise that Ashby had to work with. Perhaps it comes back to the underperformance of the two actors, as I’ve often said that great performances of great characters can make up for a host of other problems and failures. In a film like Harold and Maude it’s as if I was left waiting throughout the film to find myself really caring for these characters, yet it never happened. Sure, I chuckled a few times, and I felt that certain moments between the two were quite sweet, but nothing ever reached the level of poignancy, profundity, or hilarity that it should have.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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