A romantic comedy about a man in his early 20s having a relationship with a woman in her late 70s might sound a little creepy (though not as much as if the genders were reversed), but this is one of the sweetest, kindest films ever made, a critical and commercial flop upon its initial release that has become a cult favourite, and a nice name to drop whenever a hipster wonders aloud where Wes Anderson gets his ideas from. Wilfully quirky, and featuring the definitive contrast between disaffected youth and older, wiser experience, it flirts with some truly dark material but is never anything less than hopeful and optimistic. Harold and Maude aren’t just the two protagonists, they’re two different attitudes, two different ways of life – each learning from the other and becoming something more than the sum of their parts, much like the film itself.

Released in the early 70s, it’s actually quite surprising in some ways that it didn’t do well initially. A whole American generation had just seen the swinging 60s come to an end, and were faced with a considerably more sobering decade in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, which remained ongoing despite all the flower-haired protests. Peace and love had given way to nihilism and ennui for many, and this is perfectly encapsulated by Harold’s obsession with death, particularly his own (he fakes his own suicide seven – arguably eight – times throughout the film). He’s the poster child for directionless youth, like The Graduate with a darker streak. And like Benjamin Braddock, his encounter with an older woman is the catalyst for showing him a little more clearly what he really wants from life.

By stark and deliberate contrast, Maude has the wealth of experience to see the bigger picture. We learn considerably less about her, though we glimpse enough to figure things out for ourselves – she bears a concentration camp tattoo which is tastefully shown but never directly addressed. Her attitude to life is enjoy it while you can, and care less about what other people think than you feel you should. In a way, she displays what is more often considered a naive, youthful approach, while the younger Harold is more jaded and cynical, traditionally an older worldview. What the film suggests is that what we think is immature can often be deceptively wise, and vice-versa. It’s that kind of movie – you end up thinking outside the box and going beyond the obvious just by watching it. By the end, the idea of a 50-something age gap in a romantic relationship just seems trivial and somehow missing a wider, more important point.

HAROLD AND MAUDE
A heart so big you can almost feel its warmth from the screen10
Truly dark and shocking (though a little overplayed) mock-suicide scenes7
Making the case for true romance being a meeting of minds rather than bodies9
Genuinely making you re-evaluate what is important in life10
Giving a generation of hipsters all their ideas several decades later7
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

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