"“I would be remiss in my duty if I did not tell you that the idea of intercourse - the act of your firm, young body... comingling with... withered flesh... sagging breasts... and flabby b-b-buttocks... makes me want... to vomit.”
The quote above tells you almost everything you can know about this film without watching it. Directed by Hal Ashby, whose work hasn’t lost its shine after 30 years, and written by Colin Higgins it is a marvel that it ever got the green light. The story revolves around a young man left dislocated from society by an extraordinary upbringing and the septuagenarian who saves him from a distinctly downward spiral. It’s a very simple set up, and one that is caringly nurtured into a deeply moving, if unsettling love story.
Traditional motivations and sensibilities are deliberately set up to be knocked down. Harold’s therapist sums up the movie’s absurdist intent perfectly, “A very common neurosis, especially in this society, whereby the male child wants to sleep with his mother. Of course, in your case, what puzzles me Harold is that you want to sleep with… your grandmother.” And while its apparent philosophies aren’t meant to be taken particularly seriously and its notions of communal freedom evaporated not long after the sixties, this film simply has too much heart not to be loved.
Ashby’s quirky genius is on display from the very opening sequence where we are thrust into Harold’s strange world, presented with the spectacle of one of his many mock suicide attempts. Long shots, with disarmingly simple compositions juxtapose his absurd melodrama and his mother’s waspish indifference. All framed in the decadent surroundings of their vast home they generate a fairytale quality; a visual motif that is continued throughout the film and is essential in suspending the viewer’s disbelief and allowing us to relate to the characters.
As his mother despairs at his refusal to conform to her strange ideas and his repeated “Suicides” performed for the prospective wives she supplies and his relationship with Maude flourishes, oddly, the film gains greater perspective. Despite the obvious age gap there is a strange glimmer of chemistry between the two leads that goes a long way in justifying the film’s premise. And, by its climax on Maude’s 80th birthday even the stoniest of us are sold.
Parallels with Wes Anderson’s films are too many mention, in fact there are many modern film makers and writers that owe Ashby a significant debt. We can see the spark of Marla and The Narrator’s relationship in Fight Club in the compulsive funeral visits that initiate Harold and Maude’s affair. Likewise influences on the Coen brothers’ early films are clear and even Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” directly references Harold and Maude in its opening shot.
This is a timeless film, steeped in the best humanist traditions. It’s still brilliantly funny, genuinely moving and regardless of its age totally relevant. So off the wall that it comes full circle, a fantasy that is disarmingly real."