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Film / Harold and Maude

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"A lot of people enjoy being dead, but they're not dead, really. They're just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt, even. But play as well as you can! Go team, go! Give me an 'L'. Give me an 'I'. Give me a 'V'. Give me an 'E'. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room."
Dame Marjorie "Maude" Chardin

Harold and Maude is a 1971 film directed by Hal Ashby, starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.

The film follows the exploits of Harold Chasen (Cort), a wealthy but morbid teenager whose primary interests include attending random funerals, driving around in a hearse, and staging gory and over-the-top fake suicides for his domineering mother. Then he meets Dame Marjorie "Maude" Chardin (Gordon), a sparky 79-year-old woman who shares his interest in attending funerals, and finds in her a kindred spirit despite their being apparent diametric opposites. Soon the pair enter into a most unusual May–December Romance.

While this film received mixed reviews and tanked at the box office on its initial release, it eventually developed a cult following and has gone on to influence people such as Wes Anderson, the Farrelly Brothers and other purveyors of cinematic quirk. It also features a memorable soundtrack by Cat Stevens, who worked closely with director Ashby.

Not to be confused with Maude, or the Harold & Kumar series.

This Film Contains Examples of:

  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Harold's psychologist seems to think that Harold's May–December Romance is a variation on the Oedipus complex. Just to drive the point home, he has a picture of Freud hanging behind him.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Maude mentions the French Jew Alfred Dreyfus who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and has Nazi death camp numbers tattooed on her arm.
  • Answer Cut: Maude asks Harold, "What do you do when you aren't visiting funerals?" Cut to the two of them watching a building being demolished. Then a second cut to the two of them in a junkyard watching a crane pick up scrap iron.
  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: Uncle Vic invokes this when he talks to Harold about the perks of being in the Military, including "plenty of slant-eyed girls".
  • Aside Glance: Harold looks at the camera, smirks, and nods, after scaring off Date #1 with a fake self-immolation routine.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: As if a Jaguar E-Type were long enough to actually serve as a hearse.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Sunshine's attempt at Romeo and Juliet.
  • Bait-and-Switch Suicide: At the end of the movie. Distraught over Maude's fatal overdose, Harold aims his hearse at a cliff and runs it off. The last frame reveals that he got out at the last moment and he walks off playing a banjo.
  • Because I Said So: Mrs. Chasen is implied to have used this rationale for every decision she ever made on Harold's behalf, to the point that Harold no longer vocally protests or questions. He protests in other ways, however.
  • Big Fancy House: Where Harold lives.
  • Big "WHAT?!": Harold's reaction to the fact that Maude just poisoned herself and will die shortly.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Maude kills herself, but Harold learns a lesson about living. It's not too bitter though as Maude is happy with the life she lived and has encouraged Harold to keep on living and continue to love people.
  • Black Comedy: The biggest laughs come from a series of staged suicides.
  • Building Is Welding: Harold lights a welding torch and wears a welding visor to customize the Jaguar E-type his mother bought for him to replace the hearse she loathed.
  • Bungled Suicide: Inverted: Harold's staged suicide attempts throughout the film are very well executed.
  • The Cameo: That's Tom Skerritt (billed as "M. Borman"note ) as the motorcycle cop.
  • Chase Scene: Maude and the motorcycle cop.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Sunshine.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Sunshine's reaction to Harold's Seppuku performance in two ways. One, she doesn't believe Harold really killed himself and successfully guesses he's acting. And two, she isn't freaked out that her date staged a random suicide in front of her.
  • Cool Car: Harold's hearse. Both the Superior-bodied '59 Cadillac and the home-converted Jaguar E-Type.
  • Cool House: Maude lives in a converted train car, complete with fireplace, piano, mementos from around the world, and a bird feeder made out of a clay pigeon launcher.
  • Cool Old Lady: Good old car-stealing, hookah-smoking, murder-staging Maude.
  • Creator Cameo:
    • The conspicuous, lanky bearded man at the amusement park is none other than Hal Ashby.
    • Cat Stevens is the heavily bearded man at the funeral where Maude makes her second appearance.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Maude is implied to have lived through a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
  • Died on Their Birthday: Maude had long planned to end her life on her 80th birthday, and at the end of the movie, she follows through with that plan by overdosing on pills.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: Before "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" by Cat Stevens plays on the soundtrack, Maude plays it for Harold on her piano.
  • Disappeared Dad: Harold's father is dead.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: At one point, Maude essentially hands Harold a giant wood carving of her vagina and tells him to feel around. (Harold tries performing cunnilingus on it.)
  • Draft Dodging: Uncle Vic wants Harold to join the military. Harold and Maude concoct a plan to get him out of it.
  • Dramatic Drop: Harold's mom, after discovering that he has ruined his third and final date.
    • Also because at first glance it looks like he actually killed Sunshine.
    • Harold also has one with the Seppuku knife.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Maude could show the ol' Duke boys a thing or two about reckless driving.
    • Not to mention drifting a huge and cumbersome '59 Cadillac hearse.
  • Dysfunctional Family: Harold's family, small though it is.
  • Emo Teen: Harold is notable for being an emo teenager back before emo was even a thing.
  • Feet-First Introduction: The first scene has a tight focus on Harold's feet as he walks around the mansion, and we don't get a look at his face until he starts lighting candles right before the fake hanging.
  • Fireworks of Love: Harold and Maude kiss at the carnival as fireworks go off. Smash Cut to Harold and Maude lying in bed the next morning.
  • The Film of the Book: The screenplay is based on Colin Higgin's story, which he wrote for his Master of Fine Arts thesis. The eventual novel is now out of print, but used copies can be found for sale.
  • Flipping the Bird: Harold does this at one point behind his mother's back, both figuratively when he reassembles the Jaguar she replaces his hearse with into another hearse, then literally immediately after showing her.
  • Foreshadowing: Various lines by Maude imply that she will commit suicide on her 80th birthday.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Harold wants to marry Maude after only knowing her for about a week.
  • Freaky Is Cool: When Harold Met Maude.
  • Freudian Couch: The third time Harold is at the psychiatrist's he is seen on the couch, lying on it with arms crossed as if he were dead. His feet are also where his head should be.
  • Friends Are Chosen, Family Aren't: Harold is much more open and relaxed with Maude. When he's with his family, he's very taciturn and prone to acting out his displeasure.
  • The "Fun" in "Funeral": The film features several darkly comedic funerals. In one notable scene, the procession exits the church just as a parade rounds the corner and marches cheerily by.
  • Genre-Busting: The film is an existentialist drama, a surreal Black Comedy, a coming of age movie, and a May–December Romance.
  • Given Name Reveal: Sunshine's real name is Dorée. That is, actually it's Dor.
  • Gorn: Harold's wrist-and-throat-cutting stunt. He covered an entire bathroom in artificial blood. He actually manages to shock his mother, but only with what he did to the bathroom.
  • Grand Romantic Gesture: Maude's surprise 80th birthday party.
  • The Hero Dies: Maude, the female protagonist, dies at the end.
  • Hippie Name: One of Harold's ill-fated dates is a long-haired, rather nutty flowerchild type named Sunshine, who takes his bizarre antics completely in stride.
  • Improbably Cool Car: Budget-straining meta example in the Jaguar hearse, which was actually irreversibly modified when it would've been relatively easy to mock up a vinyl-covered roof piece on papier-mache principles that could've sat on the deck of an open roadster.
  • Karma Houdini: Maude. She steals five cars plus one police motorcycle (yeah, plus a shovel and a tree), and she might have stolen more vehicles before the events of the film. She even admits to not having a driver's license, but it's not like the police ever show up at her place to arrest her.
  • Last Kiss: Harold kisses Maude just as Maude is being wheeled into the emergency room.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Harold likes staging his own suicides. That doesn't necessarily make him a freak, though. (But tell that to his family....)
  • Manic Pixie Dream Woman: Maude, right down to the casual attitude towards theft. Age shall not wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.
    • Perhaps an Unbuilt Trope example in that, while she certainly functions as a hand-holding guide for Harold's growth into a happier, more hopeful person, she also has a rich inner life and backstory of her own apart from him and, as proven by her actions at the end of the film, exerts her own agency and doesn't entirely cater her life to the male protagonist.
  • Marry for Love: Harold wants to marry Maude rather than the more 'suitable' young women his mother picks for him.
  • Match Cut: From Maude giving Harold a guitar and showing him a couple of chords, to Harold tentatively picking out chords on a banjo at his family's mansion.
  • May–December Romance: The big one, and an extremely rare gender-flipped variant. Young man Harold pairs up with the aging Maude. He's 20. She's 79. It's a big love.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: In the scene where they're in bed together, Harold is shown naked from the waist up, while Maude is covered up to her shoulders as she sleeps.
  • The Mourning After: How Harold expects his future to be. The very last scene of the movie subverts it somewhat.
  • My Beloved Smother: To his credit, Harold fights his mother every step of the way.
  • My God, You Are Serious!: After Maude tells Harold that she's ingested poison and has minutes to live, Harold stares at her in silence, waiting for some kind of punchline, until he realizes that she's being completely serious.
  • Mysterious Past: Maude. It's implied that she's a Holocaust survivor from Austria, but other than that details are scant.
  • Name and Name: Harold and Maude is named after their protagonists, a young man Harold who falls for an elderly woman Maude.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Harold is on the milder end of the "fetishism" scale, and somewhere in the middle with the nightmares.
  • Nothing Left to Do but Die: Maude commits suicide on her 80th birthday since, in her own words, "75 is too early but by 85 you're just marking time".
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Harold is shown to be very depressed, but his mother usually shrugs off the suicide "attempts" as pranks rather than a massive warning that her son needs care and attention.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Maude uses this as her first defense against the police.
  • Opposites Attract: He's a death-obsessed loner Emo Teen from a smothering, meaningless upper-class existence. She's a life-obsessed octogenarian from a poor background. They perpetrate crime.
  • Parasol of Pain: It is implied that the umbrella hanging on Maude's wall used to be this. She's certainly old enough to have been a practitioner of Bartitsu or even of Suffrajitsu.
  • Parental Neglect: The reason why Harold started staging suicides.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: What Harold means when he says 'I love you' in the ambulance.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Cat Stevens.
  • Public Exposure: Maude poses nude for the sculptor Glaucus.
  • The Reveal:
    • Maude telling Harold that she'll be dead by midnight.
    • Maude's reason for hatred of authority: she's a Holocaust survivor.
  • Riches to Rags: It is implied that Maude's family used to be well-to-do before WWII.
    Harold: Harold. Harold Chasen.
    Maude: Oh how do you do! I'm Dame Marjorie Chardin, but you can call me Maude.
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Running Gag:
    • Harold's suicide "attempts" and that he seems to always be wearing the same outfit as his psychologist.
    • Maude 'borrowing' cars.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: A play has been produced a few times based on the movie: one on Broadway in 1980 (closed after four shows), one that ran in Paris for several years and one by the Compagnie Viola Léger in Moncton, New Brunswick.
  • Secondary Adaptation: There was also a French made for tv production in 1978, translated and written by Jean-Claude Carrière.
  • Seppuku: One of Harold's staged suicides uses this theme. "Do you... enjoy knives?"
  • Silver Vixen: Completely subverted in everyone's eyes (including the audience's), except for Harold's.
    Harold: I had the most wonderful day today. And... you're very beautiful.
    Maude: Oh, Harold. (She squeals.) You make me feel like a schoolgirl!
  • Skeleton Key: Maude carries a keyring of them that she uses to drive off in whatever vehicle she chooses. (At one point they ride off on a cop's motorcycle.)
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Despite its Black Comedy and themes of death and suicide, the movie manages to lean far on the idealistic and uplifting side.
  • Something Else Also Rises: Harold and Maude at the carnival -> fireworks -> Harold and Maude in bed the next morning.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Harold continues doing his wacky suicide attempts every time his mother sets him up on a blind date in order to drive them off. This doesn't work at all with Sunshine the actress, who not only admires his performance, she joins in and starts doing Romeo and Juliet in a hamtastic, terrible way.
  • Starts with a Suicide: A staged one, of course. This time it's hanging.
  • Suicide as Comedy: It plays Harold's regular apparent suicides for dark humour. At least, until the end.
  • Suicide by Pills: Maude had long planned to end her life on her 80th birthday, and at the film's climax takes a lethal dose of pills. Harold is horrified and distraught when he finds out and rushes her to the hospital against her wishes, but she doesn't survive.
  • Suicide Is Painless:
    • Harold's suicide stagings. Subverted again and again and again and again... and again.
    • Maude thinks that dying before eighty would be too early, but dying after eighty would be overstaying. Her solution is to poison herself the second she turns 80.
  • Sunny Sunflower Disposition: Maude.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Harold's mother recounts a story of Harold's (now dead) father getting arrested for floating naked in the Seine. With and without Maude's influence, Harold gets into hijinx of his own.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Harold's mom doesn't even react to her son's stagings of suicides. Justified, as he'd performed them a few times too often.
  • Visual Innuendo: In one scene, Maude is showing Harold her sculptures. They focus in on one in particular, an abstract oval structure with a large hole in the middle. Harold seems enthralled by it and runs his hands all over it, including through the middle.
  • Waving Signs Around: Maude has a sign that says "Peace!" which is used to create a tiny yet hilarious Powder Keg Crowd.
  • Wham Line: Maude telling Harold that she's poisoned herself. Also counts as Poorly Timed Confession as she revealed this during her surprise 80th birthday party that Harold had planned.
    Maude: I took the pills an hour ago. I'll be gone by midnight.
  • What Does He See in Her?: Everyone's reaction to Harold and Maude together.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened with Sunshine? She and Harold had a lot in common, maybe they hit it off?
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: Mrs. Chasen's and Uncle Vic's attitude toward Harold, which slides right into their Why Couldn't You Be Different? attempts to change Harold against his will.