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No. 4: “Harold and Maude” (1971)

“A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.” ~~Maude Chardin

Director Hal Ashby announces his intentions for “Harold and Maude” in the opening scene, and those intentions are, shall we say, a bit impish: Rich, purposeless 20-something Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) swings from a noose while his mother (Vivian Pickles) can’t be bothered to end her phone call. Staged suicides, we learn, are common in the palatial Chasen homestead and no cause for alarm — just annoying interruptions in mom’s quest to marry off her son. Those young adults, the things they do to stave off ennui.

And so begins “Harold and Maude,” an unconventional romantic comedy where the pursuit of life trumps all that mushy love stuff (yippee). But perhaps “unconventional” isn’t the right word to describe Ashby’s movie, for it hardly captures all the wild weirdness that makes the movie — based on Colin Higgins’ novel — such a strangely moving affirmation of life.

First there’s the mishmash of bizarreness to muddle through. It’s no wonder everyone calls this one a “cult classic”; “Love Story” it ain’t. (Chorus from Broken Record Girl: yippee.) Harold’s got absolutely no interest in life. But he’s cheeks over teacups in love with death, or at least the idea of it, so he spends his time staging elaborate suicides (the human torch bit is a personal favorite) and attending random funerals. It’s there, in a graveyard, that he meets Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old widow with an irrepressibly optimistic worldview and a knack for lifting cars. She senses Harold’s stuck in limbo, so she befriends him, slowly wearing down his resistance. At first Harold is simply a tagalong in Maude’s madcap adventures — including the liberation of a potted tree that ends in a side-splitting car chase — but gradually he becomes a participant. The shift is subtle, but when you do take notice it’s so powerful that it almost knocks you over.

Which is true of “Harold and Maude” as a whole. At its core the film is a beautiful message movie, a retelling of that time-honored “carpe diem” speech. It’s the unusual script, however, that makes the message seem fresh. Higgins’ novel dials down the sentamentality and avoids cliches, and so, too, does Ashby’s film. Ashby elects to bury the insights underneath all the blackly funny suicides and Maude’s antics. (The scene where she plays war protestor to Harold’s gung-ho recruit? Priceless.) Instead, Ashby lets the insights emerge in quieter moments, like the one where Maude, desperate to save that potted tree from its stifling life of city servitude, tells Harold: “Grab the shovel.” It’s a little scene, a throwaway little line, but what punch it has. “Harold and Maude” is jam-packed with these kinds of brilliant moments. And like any truly great movie, there’s just no end to them.

Those moments probably wouldn’t mean much without Cort and Gordon, who turn in wonderful performances as good today as they were in 1971. It’s a tricky dance, shifting from dark comedy to drama and back, but these two do it beautifully. Cort’s Harold is a strange creature, a boy who can’t fully embrace life but lacks the guts to commit suicide, and that is off-putting at first. But there’s a deep current of fear in Harold that Cort makes painfully real. “I haven’t lived. I’ve died a few times,” he says. What 20-year-old, staring into that void between youth and adulthood, hasn’t felt the same? Gordon plays nicely off that negative energy, making Maude less a lover (though there’s a scene that suggests she is) than a teacher. She wants to reach Harold, show him what it means to take that fear and use it, channel it. But she’s no soapbox preacher. She couldn’t give a fig about morality: “It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life.”

That, you see, is Maude’s gift to Harold and Ashby’s gift to us: the reminder that backing away from life is its own kind of suicide. Call me sentimental, but when that truth’s hidden in a film this haunting, poignant, comical and original? I’ll fall for it every time.