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Film Review: Harold and Maude (1971)

The primary protagonist of cult classic Harold and Maude is Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), a well-to-do young man with a fascination with death who finds love and kinship with Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), an eccentric 79-year old with an irresistible zest for life. From the start, Harold's macabre antics mildly irritate his long-desensitized, busy socialite mother (Vivian Pickles), who tries to run his life for him. Mrs. Chasen signs Harold up at a dating agency, has him discuss his future with his military-minded uncle, and sends him to receive psychiatric help in fruitless attempts to normalize him. In the mean time, Harold spends his days staging his own suicides and attending the funerals of strangers, where he eventually meets Maude. The older woman immediately identifies in Harold a soul similar to hers and welcomes him into her bohemian, car-jacking, art-loving, tree-saving, song-and-dance-filled life.

Cort excels in his role as the pale, strange, disconnected Harold whose morbid actions teeter on true, dramatic seriousness and unexpected black comedy. Gordon is utterly vivacious and winning as the devil-may-care Maude. Their relationship is remarkable and believably solid, selling the audience on the intimacy and logic of their unusual romance. The film is also full of fresh, inventive, and subtly symbolic visuals and camerawork, some of which are hilarious at second viewing and some whimsical or simply beautiful. Likely an influence on filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade, many scenes and images in Harold and Maude stand out: the opening long take, the symmetrical set-up at the psychiatric office, the zoom out at the white tombstone cemetery, and any time there is a deep focus shot. The film is absolutely filled with visual jokes and gems.

Harold and Maude is a fantastic comedy that unexpectedly combines themes of life and death into a complicated but heart-felt relationship between two oddball characters. The film deals irreverently with mortality as Harold playacts his death and somehow manages to pull the rug out from under the audience again and again. With the capricious addition of Maude—the OG manic pixie dream girl—the film also weaves in a message of living life to the fullest as the spritely older woman shares her life with Harold and opens his eyes to the world. At its unforgettable and surprising ending, Harold and Maude successfully brings together all of its quirks and energy to present a final statement about Harold’s journey of self-discovery as aided by the wise and experienced Maude.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 sunflowers

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