During a walk through a field of daisies, Maude turns to Harold and says: “I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?” Harold replies that he would like to be one of the daisies “because they’re all alike.” Maude turns to Harold and explains the problem with his answer: “Oh, but they’re not. Look, see. Some are smaller, some are fatter. Some grow to the left, some to the right. Some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences.” Harold looks on at the flowers in silence; his thoughts, which he once deemed immutable, now entirely demolished and reorganised by the principle of life itself. The camera pans out into an extreme long-shot, as it’s revealed that the field of daisies Harold and Maude are standing in is a graveyard – the gravestones identical as daisies from the perspective.
Where other directors may have used a close-up shot to convey feeling, Ashby does the opposite, as he attempts to orient his viewer into an ecological point of view. Flowers growing out of gravestones. Cat Stevens’ If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, the film’s musical leitmotif, playing.
Stevens’ soundtrack both seems to further embolden Maude’s perspective and the lessons she hands down to Harold, while ameliorating the taboo relationship between old and young. Just as the strings swell when Rick and Isla kiss in Casablanca, so Stevens gives the same majestic treatment to Harold and Maude – but swapping violin strings for acoustic nylon guitar strings. This works most effectively during one of the film’s most controversial scenes, when Cat Stevens sings over the sight of a naked Harold and Maude lying under bed sheets. Instead of smoking after sex, Harold blows a bubble as the music plays; blowing out life into the air, instead of taking ash into his lungs. He seems to have found the answer to the question “What is the point of living?” The point of living, I surmised by the film’s end, is partly to accept death. To see it as an essential and beautiful and inevitable machine that regenerates more life. It never ceases. If anything, it encourages us to go and love some more.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.