An eighteen-year-old boy falls in love with a nearly eighty-year-old woman. It sounds like a particularly shock-courting premise for a dire gross-out comedy, but the triumph of classic independent film Harold and Maude is that, while embracing the oddness of such an unlikely relationship, it manages to make it convincing and tender.
The real difference between the titular Harold (Bud Cort) and Maude (Ruth Gordon) isn’t their ages, but their approaches to life. Harold is young, but obsessed with death; he spends his days staging spectacularly gory fake suicides in his family’s mansion in order to annoy his Waspish mother (Vivian Pickles, whose unflinching unflappability stands out even in a film full of note-perfect performances) and driving to attend strangers’ funerals in his hearse. Maude, in contrast, is a life-affirming free spirit who spends her old age driving off in stolen cars and liberating trees from plant pots by the road. Both the lead actors give excellent performances – Gordon is warm and endearing, preventing the film from being too dominated by Cort’s more emotionally chilly presence. You can see Cort’s dark-haired, glassy-eyed descendants in the protagonist of every American independent film, Jason Schwartzmann in Rushmore and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks being prime examples, but he is particularly good at quietly giving heart to Harold’s alienation from his mother’s conformist and materialistic lifestyle. The two are so perfect that they manage to make their relationship seem natural. As soon as Harold, attending a funeral, sees Maude at another grave, sneezing and eating an orange, you will for them to meet, because you know they’ll share something special.
The conflict between Harold’s nihilism and Maude’s full-hearted embrace of life makes for a subtle and sometimes ambiguous philosophical parable, but the film is full of slyly witty moments, such as the scene where Harold’s mother insists on registering him with a dating agency, then fills in all the personality questions with her own answers, while he stages another suicide in front of her. The film’s tendency to ramble from one such scene to another can occasionally feel directionless, but its general charm more than makes up for it.
It is also unusually visually impressive. The cinematography has a shadowy look, like an old oil painting, in which the characters’ faces glow white, and features striking imagery such as the opening tracking shot of Harold’s feet as he walks through his house in preparation for ‘hanging’ himself, or a cut from a shot of Howard’s military uncle sitting at a desk in front of a portrait of Nixon to his therapist sitting at a desk in front of a portrait of Freud which quietly pinpoints the constraining conformism of 1970s American society. Cat Stevens’ soundtrack is beautiful too. Overall, Harold and Maude is a uniquely odd film, but a joy to watch.