As artistic styles develop and audience sensibilities change, it’s inevitable that certain causes célèbres will lose a certain sense of purpose as the years go by. And yet, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude remains as strange a proposition in 2014 as it must have in 1971. Ashby’s idiosyncrasies never quite fitted in with the zeal of his movie brat contemporaries, yet he was just as interested in the generational schism precipitated by the sixties counterculture; he simply weaved them through his uniquely offbeat comic vision. Watching Harold and Maude in the same year as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), it’s interesting to note just how influential its deadpan stylings became.
Ashby’s film follows the story of Harold Chasen (Bud Cort, pictured right), a morbid young man whose obsession with death becomes a constant source of despair for his shallow socialite mother (Vivian Pickles, also pictured). During one of his many visits to a stranger’s funeral one day, Harold meets 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). She’s every bit as eccentric as our protagonist, but her youthful energy is channelled into an infectious zest for life. While Harold’s mother is busy setting him up with a shooting gallery of unsuitable dates, he becomes close to Maude and finds solace in her strange, passionate way of approaching life. The possible romantic association between the patently mismatched pair has been an inevitable discursive focus point, but the main interest of Ashby’s film lie elsewhere.
There’s a dark streak of comic absurdity running throughout Harold and Maude that serves a dual purpose; it gives the film its unique, heightened tone, but it also conversely grounds the more whimsical element by hinting at a greater darkness beyond the events portrayed within. The film is essentially an elaborate projection of Harold’s teenage ennui and the way it manifests itself as both a literal and figurative death wish. He stages artificial suicide attempts through which Ashby skilfully exploits Cort’s dead-eyed stare and mortician’s gait. The actor’s face remains passive as he moves from a traditional hanging to a hilariously intricate act of seppuku. Fans of Hal Hartley and Anderson will find the genesis of those directors’ comic sensibilities in Harold and Maude.
While these comedic elements are quite forward-thinking, what places the film in the early seventies is the way Ashby uses the relationship to cast an inquisitive eye over the era’s youth culture. The end of the Summer of Love, the presidential assassination and the Vietnam War precipitated an existential crisis in teenagers of the day. Maude, whose past trauma in equally historic horrors is frequently alluded to, is Harold’s way back into the land of the living; her jaunty survivor spirit is a positive challenge to his dramatic nihilism. For a generation desensitised into indifferent submission by contemporary events, Harold and Maude implores the youth to take note of the lessons of history. In a disenchanted age, purpose and drive can bring fulfilment.