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The unlikely story of the love affair between a death-obsessed adolescent and a septuagenarian free spirit is a cult movie par excellence
Director Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Being There, Shampoo) was perhaps the most opaque of the movie brats - never one to take the easy route in his life, career or in his storytelling. Certainly Harold And Maude would be an obtuse choice by most directors' standards. Despite or because of this, many connoisseurs of the era's cinema rank Ashby's film up there with The Graduate and M*A*S*H for its brilliant black humour, absurdist, anti-authoritarian intelligence and counterculture whimsical wit.
Harold (Cort) is a hearse-driving 19-year-old introvert rich kid, dominated by his overbearing mother (Pickles) and with a penchant for serial fake suicides. "Tell me Harold, how many of these, er, suicides have you performed?" asks his therapist. Maude (Gordon), by contrast, is a car-thieving 79-year-old free spirit and anarchist, with a joie de vivre that borders on the implausible, but which is incredibly infectious - even contagious. The two meet up at the funerals each habitually attends: Maude in the spirit of life affirmation, Harold presumably to nurture his deathwish.
They form an unlikely but visceral friendship, while Harold deters the girls his mother sets up for him with ever-more-grisly suicide scenarios - which culminate in a spectacular hari-kiri at his palatial house. Maude meanwhile, introduces him to the banjo and takes him on car theft sprees. Together they bait traffic cops and liberate saplings from local towns for transplant back in the countryside.
If on first appearance this is a hippie movie, with noses thumbed at the usual bogey figures - clergy, cops, the military (Harold has a possibly insane one-armed soldier uncle) - before long it becomes apparent the film is something else. Maude is clearly Harold's 'therapist' - and her soulful, devil-may-care regimen gradually loosens his joints and breathes life into him. But the two are also soulmates, and eventually even, erm, lovers.
This too-cute collocation may irritate some, but the film is intelligent, hilarious and finally very touching. It's beautifully put together by Ashby, shot in muted, autumnal colours, and with hardly another soul to be seen along the blustery Californian vistas where Harold and Maude conduct their courtship and his spiritual awakening. Its off-kilter humanity and deftness of touch makes it a spiritual ancestor to The Royal Tenenbaums - and you can bet Wes Anderson is an Ashby fan in general, and a Harold And Maude fan in particular.
Insane and whimsical by turn, and very much a product of its time. But Harold And Maude's black humour and absurdist, life-affirming credo make it a joy to watch. Not to be missed.
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