The Graduate and Harold and Maude have a lot in common. Each tell stories about a May-December romance, with the male the younger partner (still a rarity in mainstream films), but are more interested in interrogating bourgeois malaise. They’re both satires laced with black comedy, but each has a real sadness at the core. Folk icons score both films: Simon and Garfunkel on The Graduate, Cat Stevens for Harold and Maude. They’re both cultural touchstones, and each is a significant influence on the work of Wes Anderson, embodying his signature mixture of playfulness and despondency.
Such thematic similarities don’t extend to aesthetic similarities. The Graduate has a colourful, bold style. What lingers is the sense of heat, blue pools shimmering in the sunlight and, of course, the virtuoso, mischievous experimentation: the scenes shot from within Ben (Dustin Hoffman)’s diving suit, a zoom that changes focus halfway through to find a gorilla in the background, or that devastating moment as Elaine (Katharine Ross) racks into focus behind her mother. Harold and Maude is equally gorgeous, but it has a more pastoral feel, dominated by natural browns and fading greens. The cinematography is less playful, capturing the sedate rhythms of the film perfectly, allowing Maude (Ruth Gordon)’s livewire energy to energise the film.
The protagonists of each film – Ben, “the graduate” and Harold (Bud Cort) – share immense wealth and distant parents. Both young men seem to float through life without direction; Ben idles at the bottom of his parents’ California pool while Harold is only able to find joy in death, enacting elaborate fake suicides which lead his mother to despair and his dates to flee. They each find meaning in a woman: Ben’s affair with Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is hollow and meaningless, but he falls for her daughter, Elaine. Meanwhile Harold finds appreciation for the joys of life with the effervescent, enigmatic Maude, over fifty years his senior.
Setting these two side-by-side, I found Harold and Maude the superior film; Harold, a morbid misfit, is more sympathetic than the abrupt, caddish Ben, and while The Graduate is more visually exciting, it fails to flesh out Elaine’s character, rendering her a conflicted object of desire and little else (that said, the “romance” between Ben and Mrs Robinson is pitch perfect). These are both great films, however, finding space to both mock and sympathise with the discontentment that comes with having everything.