1971’s Harold and Maude is a twisted coming of age story and wildly eccentric romantic comedy. Harold is a deadpan and detached young man living in a mansion with his overbearing socialite mother. His favourite game is pretending to kill himself, either by hanging, fake blood in the bath or floating facedown in the swimming pool. His preferred pastime is attending funerals. It’s here that he meets Maude, a vivacious free spirit who steals cars and sees the world as her playground. She’s cheeky, beguiling and interested in Harold. She’s also seventy nine.

Thus begins this profoundly off-beat and darkly quirky tale, as Harold bounces between his suffocating home life and the dazzling dimension Maude paints for him. While his flabbergasted Mother enlists him in the army and sets him up on ‘computer dates’, Maude has him smoking hookahs, stealing police bikes and rescuing trees from the sidewalk. It’s delightful to see Harold’s transformation, as his menacing aloofness dissolves to a wide eyed wonder at this women from another planet.

Harold and Maude is a cinematic blueprint that certainly influenced the likes of Wes Anderson. Visually, it’s a feast; chocked with strong colours and dynamic compositions. Scenes open with dramatic panoramic shots, while the 70’s browns, greens and blues are captured in warm sepia tone. Just as Life Aquatic featured the songs of David Bowie, (and an appearance by Bud Cort) Harold and Maude is soundtracked by Cat Stevens. The bursts of studio recordings inject a warm energy and lightness to the story. In one memorable scene Maude struts through a graveyard with a yellow umbrella, backed by Tea For The Tillerman.

The film’s success lies in the performance of Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. It’s a testament to their skill and charisma that these two highly improbable characters burst from the screen with elegance and authenticity. Cort has an adorable and captivating face, both androidinal and cherubic, and conjures some joyfully unhinged expressions. Gordon powers the film, radiating charisma like a sassy sun. She brings to the role playfulness and vigour, but also a sensuality which is fascinatingly anti-stereotype.

The script is sharp and intelligent, mixing macabre physical comedy with snappy dialogue and some painfully optimistic philosophies. To off-set the wackiness, the film has an anti-war bent. Harold’s Uncle is a one armed Sergeant returned from Vietnam, pulling a drawstring to salute with his empty sleeve. To protest against this spiritual repression, Maude mentors Harold to be ‘impulsive and fanciful,’ and while some of her rants can grate, there’s some splendid exchanges.
Harold: Do you pray?
Maude: Pray? No, I communicate.
Harold: With God?
Maude: With Life.

On first viewing it’s easy to get caught up in the idiosyncratic humour and age politics. The film doesn’t shy away from this, and there’s a hilarious monologue from the priest warning Harold against ‘co-mingling with the withered flesh and flabby buttocks.’ Yet on second viewing the film reveals a deceptive emotional depth. In an easy to miss sequence, Maude uncovers a Jewish concentration camp tattoo. In this context, the pair singing If you want to sing out, sing out / If you want to be free be free passionately off-key, brought me close to tears.

Like all great films, Harold and Maude stops you in your tracks and reminds you that life is full of beauty that can’t be seen from inside a cage. Its anti-conformity theme will appeal to the misfits, while the love story is positively punk in its daring. Where the themes, humour and soundtrack have aged beautifully, the same cannot be said for the fashion.