Harold and Maude is a coming-of-age comedy movie by Hal Ashby, released in 1971. The film has now gained a cult following and has received several accolades. It has been included in various “Best Films of all Time” lists and currently ranks at #45 in AFI’s 100 Funniest Films of all Time list. Despite the praise it enjoys today, the film originally received mixed reviews. Most of the criticism it received was for its dark humor, which is now the film’s biggest attraction.
We see from the start of the film the utter fascination Harold has with death. In less than fifteen minutes of the film, we see him faking his death thrice, with his first attempt being at the very beginning. He also attends the funeral of unknown people for fun and loves to drive hearses. His depression is actually a result of his extremely narcissistic mother, who barely gives him any attention. Her mother, instead of taking her son’s depression seriously, treats it as an annoyance.
On one fateful day, Harold comes across Maude, a carefree septuagenarian lady. Similar to Harold, she too exhibits eccentric behavior. She attends funerals of strangers and steals cars for fun. She gets closer to Harold after she notices him at several funerals. Unlike Harold, Maude is obsessed with life and living. She’s passionate about the circle of life and the relation that each life in the world shares with each other. She is also a fierce believer that people should be in control of their own lives, and she expresses this through her queer attitude.
Both the characters, Harold and Maude, represent both death and life, respectively. The relation between the finality of death and the pointlessness of life forms an incredibly huge part of existentialism. The arcs of Harold and Maude that we follow in the film are an interesting look at this relationship.
Incorporating dark comedy – Harold and Maude
Audiences have seen several drama films that contain the theme of existentialism. Combating this theme becomes too gloomy for many films, and the majority of the time, the films fail to depict the other, much brighter side of the coin. This is what Harold and Maude do better than in other films.
The film is clearly from the start about the absurdity that is life. We see it clearly from the eyes of the young-adult Harold. His mother is too busy at being a high-class socialite, and his uncle holds himself to pointless ideas that are nations and wars. The dark humor in the film is used as a tool to convey this idea of absurdity. It also stops the film from being too depressing.
The dark comedy also highlights the other side of existentialism – if life is absurd and pointless, why not embrace it? Maude’s comedic but controversial acts accentuate the embracing of life’s pointlessness. She explained how at her young age she fought the system through revolts but is now doing it through her own, individual way. She now lives as an outcast, without any rules that society sets on her. Because if life is absurd after all, then why not live it in the most absurd way possible?
Mixing dark comedy with existentialism is not a unique phenomenon now, and Harold and Maude can be credited with being its originator. The two themes seemed like polar opposites but instead complimented each other so well. The effects of this revolutionary idea by Hal Ashby can still be felt today, in movies like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.