Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude feels like an exercise in bipolar disorder; Harold spends his time teasing a deathwish, faking everything from self-immolation and drowning to driving a car over a cliff, while Maude immerses herself in hedonism and liberation, stealing cars and local trees in order to replant the forests. There’s little traditional narrative to speak of, and the wandering portrait of zany characters the film eventually fleshes out smacks of Wes Anderson’s hand, though H&M predates him by a couple decades. It’s one of those paradoxical lighthearted black comedies that never quite takes itself seriously, with cartoonishly detached mothers, zany army caricatures, several nameless inane women, and other characters that defy any sense of seriousness. It’s actually so insincere and absurd that it’s difficult to care where the film goes.
Harold is a teenager with a death wish and mother who insists he date women pushing 30 something. He deals with this by faking his death repeatedly, in front of his mother, dates, and nobody in particular. Maude is a seventy-nine year old self-proclaimed vigillante of nature who spends her free time running from cops and carving tree stumps into giant clitori. The two meet over a mutual fascination with funerals, and from the moment Maude trades driver’s seat with Harold in his own stolen car, the couple are undeniably in need of one another. The question, of course, is why? The film’s close, with Harold tossing his hearse from a cliff, leads us to believe that the couples’ relationship instilled a want for life in the young man, and maybe it did. But the change it brings about in Maude, with her suicidal death embrace is more representative of the film’s general feel—overdoing things. While the boy learns to live, Maude forces an end to her life—total self-destruction. Ashby’s characters feel too over the top, Harold’s false deaths feel too elaborate, and the whole thing is tainted by a hand that’s trying too hard to shoehorn in comedy through absurdity. The retired army general, Uncle Victor, feels like a hodgepodge of Peter Sellers’ characters from Dr Strangelove, but without the definition or charisma Sellers attributed to his roles. Almost all of the characters are defined by a single dominant trait—the mother’s self-centeredness, Harold’s depression, Maude’s mania; they feel more like characteristics rather than individuals.
I won’t say I disliked Harold and Maude; when Harold slowly glanced at the camera after his self-imolation and grinned, I fell in love with him, but only briefly. The most spoken-about element of the film—the April/December sex scene— is also a microcosm of its most significant failing. Audiences have a hard time stomaching the idea of a teenager boning a septagenarian because it’s ridiculous and disgusting. Most of Harold and Maude is this kind of ridiculous—ludicris dark humor played out to an absurd degree. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to anchor it in reality, and though the film’s finale feels meaningful, it’s difficult to say what it means. One boy has learned to live, but I’m not entirely sure why.