Harold and Maude
“What do you do for fun?”
“I go to funerals”
The tale of the older man, desperately trying to reclaim his youth by taking up with a vivacious younger woman, is a well-trodden narrative stereotype. Hal Ashby’s cult classic Harold and Maude subverts this beautifully in his tender 1971 black comedy; in this tale, it’s a baby-faced, death-obsessed twenty year old man who is brought to life by an ebullient 79 year old woman who steals cars and models in the nude.
Harold is a lonely young man who stages elaborate suicide hoaxes to upset his glacial, aristocratic mother and passes time by going to stranger’s funerals. It’s at one of these that he meets Maude, an (almost) octogenarian who steals cars, loves to dance and sasses policemen on a regular basis. Their unlikely friendship soon turns into a relationship and they decide to get married, much to the disgust of Harold’s mother, who has been trying to find him a suitable wife from a dating agency.
Both Harold and Maude spend a great deal of time thinking about death, but in different ways. Harold goes to funerals so that he can revel in it; Maude goes to remind herself of the importance of living fully. And live she certainly does; when she isn’t nude modeling or making her own art, she’s stealing urban trees to replant them in the forest and encouraging Harold to sing and dance with her. We get a glimpse into the pain that she’s hiding halfway through the film when Harold asks her a question that prompts her to talk about her past. And on the night that he confesses he loves her, he notices that she bears a concentration camp tattoo on her arm.
Just as Harold begins to open to Maude’s way of embracing life, Maude turns 80. He plans a birthday surprise for her, but it’s not as big as the one she has for him; she has taken an overdose. She never planned to live longer than 80 and it was always her intention to take her own life on her birthday. She dies in hospital, and for a brief moment it looks as if Harold might have followed suit when we see his car driving over a cliff. But in the next shot, we see that Harold didn’t go with it. The car was an e-type Jaguar that he converted into a hearse, and its destruction is symbolic of Harold’s commitment to a new way of life. The closing scenes are of him walking away playing the banjo that Maude encouraged him to learn.
Death in Harold and Maude
Although it’s a story that features a lot of actual death, the figurative kind is really far more at its heart. We see in the early scenes that Harold, in a sense, exists in a kind of living death. Though fabulously wealthy, his life consists solely of his interactions with his domineering, aloof mother, his psychiatrist and his war-obsessed veteran uncle who is always trying to recruit him to the army. By contrast, it’s Maude’s confrontation with real death that has made her determined to live so fiercely. She may take her own life at the end, but not before extracting every last drop of joy from it. “Lots of people think they’re dead,” she tells Harold, “but they’re not.”
The film also makes the point that being morbid is a luxury that only the young can afford (this is, one assumes, why you see so few goths who are past middle age). Harold can obsess about death because he is so far away from it. Maude, on the other hand, has been confronting its reality her whole life, and that’s exactly why she embraces life with all the gusto of a woman a quarter of her age. If you have the privilege of life, Maude tells us, the only thing you can do with it is seize it with both hands.
If I were in the medical profession, I would prescribe this film instead of Prozac.
Watch the trailer here: