The 1971 film Harold and Maude directed by Hal Ashby is a heartfelt tale about the balance of life and death told through the relationship between Maude (Ruth Gordon) and Harold (Bud Cort). An unlikely romantic relationship forms between the septuagenarian and the young teenager as Maude shows Harold how to live wholly and for one’s self. Maude above all else stands as a ray of sunshine amongst people who are obsessed with saving up their money and collecting things around them, only to forego on the experience factor of life. Harold and Maude may be one of the most enjoyable and faith restoring films ever made. The film offers commentary on the pessimistic and greedy society in which we all live, it’s a commentary on being ignored, feeling insignificant and generally being marginalized. Maude has an outlook on life from the margins, she collects things for herself that remind her of the beauty of a life well lived. Both characters are wholly unique in opposite ways, Harold has an obsession with dying while Maude has an obsession with living. They meet somewhere in between life and death; at a funeral.
The dichotomy of age between Harold and Maude is the most intelligent character device in the film. It sets up an appreciation of both view-points, someone who is just entering adulthood versus someone who has lived their entire life. They both see each other as moments in time that they have or will experience. The difference in their subsequent obsessions of life and death also sets them as opposites. For all intents and purposes, these people should not be good friends, but they understand one another. Harold’s obsession with death lends him to a friendship with an older more experienced person while Maude’s penchant for living fits her friendship with someone who is just beginning to appreciate life.
One of the most incredible shots in the film is a slow zoom out from a picnic Harold and Maude are having, as it zooms out it is revealed they are in a cemetery, and it keeps zooming out to reveal that the cemetery is rows and rows of unmarked white graves. This shot is the most striking and upsetting moments in the film when paired with what has just come before it. Where Harold and Maude were talking about the fact that many people allow themselves to only be treated as a number rather than as a fully fledged human being with needs and wants. There is a phenomenal bit of dialogue where Maude tells Harold about the differences between each individual flower in a field, showing how at first glance everyone appears the same, but on closer inspection there’s something special about everyone. This analogy being paired up with the imagery of the anonymous tombstones is deeply depressing, slapping you in the face and saying don’t let yourself be anonymous, don’t let yourself be treated that way.
This movie is in my personal opinion, refreshing for the soul. It makes you think about the relationships in your life, it makes you question what you surround yourself with and what it’s really for. It’s above all a love song to life, to living and appreciating, to breathing fresh air and to sleeping next to someone you love. Harold and Maude is a good film because it is about being happy, it’s about collecting all of the moments that make you most elated and bringing them together to make them your life. It yells at you to go take an adventure, bring back a story, and then go live some more. Ashby wants his viewers to know that the secret to being happy is doing what makes you happy, a statement that gets complicated a lot these days.