Harold And Maude

Hal Ashby’s dark romantic comedy was panned by several prominent critics upon release at the start of 1972, but it has since developed a cult following and has been comprehensively reappraised; in fact it’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about it today. The film stars Bud Cort as Harold – a young man who is obsessed with death, regularly mocking up fake suicide attempts at home – and Ruth Gordon as Maude, a 79-year-old woman who shares Harold’s interest in attending the funerals of strangers. Though there’s a huge age gap between them – enough to put many people off watching it, then and now – there’s an undeniable sweetness to their relationship as it develops during the film, and her positivity and joie-de-vivre seems to have an effect on the morose young lad, who has lightened up by the end. The screenplay is very funny from the off: in the opening scene we deduce from Harold’s mother’s unimpressed reaction that the suicide attempt we have apparently just witnessed is a) a hoax and b) the latest in a long line of similar attempts by Harold to shock. His ‘deaths’ become funnier as their staging becomes more elaborate – whether by using fake blood or burning a human-shaped figure doused in gasoline. It’s similar to the effect of the plays in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore – and this film is clearly a huge influence, in terms of its whimsy, its black comedy and its characters. Harold And Maude is also bitter at times, not least in the way it shows the fate that can befall a young member of a cold, uncaring, preoccupied upper class American family, but also in its frankness regarding aging and (real) death. Excellent performances, and there’s a wonderful soundtrack by Cat Stevens, too. (****)