“I haven’t lived.  I’ve died a few times”: ‘Harold and Maude’ Review

Posted in Screening Room by - February 07, 2018
“I haven’t lived.  I’ve died a few times”: ‘Harold and Maude’ Review

What better way to start our celebration of love stories than with a delightful May/December romance that just happens to be one of the cornerstones of 1970s counterculture filmmaking. Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is a joyous, stylish and subversive celebration of life, love, joy, sadness, and expression that is a wonder to behold from start to finish.  Directed by one of the heavyweights of the New Hollywood, Hal Ashby, and written by Colin Higgins Harold and Maude does a spectacular job at deftly combining sub-genres into its romantic comedy premise.

The story concerns Harold, a young man near his 20s, who is fixated on death and develops intricate scenarios to try to commit suicide but his attitude changes when he meets Maude, a senior woman in her late 70s, who ultimately changes Harold and teaches him about the importance of life. One of the best aspects about Ashby’s film is how assured and balanced it feels regarding balancing the more morbid elements with its hopeful and sincere sentimentality; it should have a jarring transition, but it always feels like an expertly orchestrated balancing act.

Ashby, known for New Hollywood game changers like The Last Detail and Shampoo, gives Harold and Maude a distinct style that perfectly gives the film a delightfully macabre sense of humor, especially during Harold’s many suicide attempts. The film includes themes of life and death, light and darkness and old and new but the direction and style is a perfect representation of those ideals captured visually on screen. While the film exists on the real world and it touches a lot on what the ideals of the New Hollywood were, like an emphasis on raw honesty, it also incorporates the more fantastical elements at the very beginning, and then it slowly changes. The move towards the raw sincerity mirrors Harold’s relationship with Maude as he falls in love with her and learns to celebrate life just as she does.

Ashby’s film certainly wouldn’t be the same without the performances by Bud Cort (Harold) and Ruth Gordon (Maude) who make this romance entirely believable, charming and utterly fascinating. It’s a huge credit to them that the audience cares about their relationship, not only do we spend a lot of time seeing that relationship grow, but they make every moment count. There’s a scene in which Maude tells Harold her entire philosophy about living and Gordon’s performance during that scene is revelatory, but it’s also strong and guided by a strong sense of purpose.

Ashby’s Harold and Maude is very much a film of its time that could never be made today; it’s a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the New Hollywood but with a very sweet and honest romantic relationship that we care deeply about. Anchored by two brilliant performances, a delightfully witty script and an outstanding soundtrack by Cat Stevens, Harold and Maude is a wonderful romance that includes some incredibly powerful statements at its core. It’s a massive influence on the career of Wes Anderson (he even cast Bud Cort for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and a terrific cult classic that deserves to be discovered by more people.

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He is an avid movie fan and loves to write about movies perhaps a little too much. He also considers Casino Royale to be the best James Bond film ever made and he's ready to defend at any moment.

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