I'm not at all sure how I had managed not to have seen this film before. I bought a used copy of the disc for peanuts on an auction site because it was referred to in so many reviews and pieces of writing on film. It is a gem - an oddball and goofy film that is at one and the same time profound. It is hard to imagine the impact this film would have made on its initial release in 1971.
Conceived and filmed in the Bay area around San Francisco, this film picks up the metaphysical interrogation of the meaning of love and relationships and 'correct behaviour' in the glorious days before political correctness. It was also made in the middle of the Vietnam War and Harold is about the average age of the US soldier in 'Nam - 19! For me the film seeks to reflect on three things:
- Fulfilling parental and societal expectations
- Definitions of love and relationship
- The futility of the Vietnam war
Harold appears to be an only child in a wealthy society family. His mother exudes expectation with every breath and the absence of a father figure will no doubt by some be seen to be a significant factor in Harold's psychological development. Harold has developed an obsession with death and throughout the film stages a number of elaborate and highly theatrical suicides. Each one is a brush with death but they are more Hollywood stunt than serious attempts to end his life. Harold spends the rest of his time attending funerals. His car of choice is a hearse.
His mother sets up a series of encounters with likely partners for her son but these all come to nothing as Harold is not interested. Then he meets 79 year old Maude who also attends funerals. She hot-wires cars, rides a Harley and evades the police for fun. Maude lives in what looks like an old railway carriage, poses nude for an ice sculptor and has a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. She lives for the moment and seems always content with her lot. Very much an existentialist in the style of Mr Keating in the Dead Poets Society.
After the second suicide attempt Harold is sent into therapy by his mother and the therapist presents as an archetypal Freudian psychoanalyst. Harold also repeatedly encounters the same Catholic priest taking funerals and is forced to visit his uncle who is an Army recruiter with one arm missing! This film has many darkly comedic episodes and one of them has a series of scenes where Harold is lectured first by his therapist with a portrait of Freud on the wall, then by the priest with a portrait of the Pope on the wall and finally by his uncle with a portrait of Nixon on the wall. Authority is lampooned and the meta-narrative they represent is derided. All very post modern.
I found this to be an excellent and engaging film which invites reflection on a wide range of issues and ideas. There were plans for both a prequel from Maude's perspective and a sequel from Harold's perspective but neither came to fruition. I think that's good as the film deserves to stand on its own and to continue to grow its cult status. I'll give it 7/10.