There's a dark streak of comic absurdity running throughout Harold and Maude that serves a dual purpose; it gives the film its unique, heightened tone, but it also conversely grounds the more whimsical element by hinting at a greater darkness beyond the events portrayed within. The film is essentially an elaborate projection of Harold's teenage ennui and the way it manifests itself as both a literal and figurative death wish. He stages artificial suicide attempts through which Ashby skilfully exploits Cort's dead-eyed stare and mortician's gait. The actor's face remains passive as he moves from a traditional hanging to a hilariously intricate act of seppuku. Fans of Hal Hartley and Anderson will find the genesis of those directors' comic sensibilities in Harold and Maude.
While these comedic elements are quite forward-thinking, what places the film in the early seventies is the way Ashby uses the relationship to cast an inquisitive eye over the era's youth culture. The end of the Summer of Love, the presidential assassination and the Vietnam War precipitated an existential crisis in teenagers of the day. Maude, whose past trauma in equally historic horrors is frequently alluded to, is Harold's way back into the land of the living; her jaunty survivor spirit is a positive challenge to his dramatic nihilism. For a generation desensitised into indifferent submission by contemporary events, Harold and Maude implores the youth to take note of the lessons of history. In a disenchanted age, purpose and drive can bring fulfilment.