Harold and Maude

The beginning of the Easter holidays and only 8 people turned up for the screening of Harold and Maude. The intimate atmosphere made contributions easier to make and all but one person  talked.  All but one had seen the film before and one member of the audience remembered hating it, having seen it many  many years ago. She said that she even walked out of the film then. To my surprise she said ” I was too young for the film when I saw it, I have changed my mind about it”. Other members said how much they appreciated it on a big screen and that although they remembered it, it was still full of interesting tensions : “The film  makes you think”.

I am always wrong footed and ill prepared for the reaction of the audience. I was worried in case they did not like the black humour, the fake and real suicides, the quirkiness of the old woman and wondered what they would make of the sexual relationship.  This clearly demonstrates my own internalised ageism. They appreciated every  aspect of the film.

That the film is a cult film for American youth and appeals, too, to our ageing audience is intriguing. It shows that beyond its background in the hippy 60s and  the Vietnam war it  is still relevant today.

As usual I wish I had more time to explore and research the various areas of interest for older women that the film reveals. I will only touch on them and ask some questions.

-1-  The initial contact between Harold and Maude is based on  the taboo subject of death. For Harold faking gruesome suicides is a desperate attempt to attract his mother’s attention. For Maude the consciousness of death enhances the love of life. By the end of the film Harold has started living and Maude commits suicide.  Maude had  decided to commit suicide when she reached 80 in spite of being in good health mentally and physically. Is this a serious subject for debate or just a cinematic device?

-2- What gets Harold to relate to Maude is her anti conformism. Putting aside the quirkiness of the character in the film, where else is the image of the old woman  liberated from social constraints explored?   The stereotype of the old woman as conservative and intolerant is subverted in Tatie Danielle (1990) and the 1965 La Vieille Femme Indigne is  a liberated old woman but why aren’t these films better known?

– 3- Maude fulfils many roles. As mother she takes notice of the youth when his mother ignores him completely. As teacher, she gets him out of his self-absorption and awakens in him an interest in his surroundings. We know that very often grandmothers care for their grandchildren but what becomes of the relationship when the children grow into teenagers?  

-4- Maude tutors Harold in sensory experiences and initiates him to sex.  The film ranks 9th in the American Film Institute of the Top Ten Romantic comedies. In this genre sex is implied rather than graphic and indeed so it is in this film.   The outburst of the priest however is a most explicit expression of disgust at the idea of old people having sex.

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not tell you that the idea of –(he swallows)- intercourse – the fact of your young, firm –(growing disturbed)– body commingling with the withered flesh, sagging breasts, and flabby buttocks – makes me –(falls apart) – want to vomit.  

These words in the mouth of an apoplectic, frustrated priest are highly comical. The audience of  U3A women found the sex as the culmination of a relationship. But  it is the youth that made this film into a cult film. It is because of young people that the film is available widely and is reissued time and again  and it is the young people who blog and blog about it. What do they  make of the sexual relationship between the 79-year-old woman and the teenager?

I feel that all these questions deserve serious academic study.


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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