I recently saw Harold and Maude (1971) for the first time. It is the combination of humour – at times dry, other times slapstick or even ‘camp’ (in the sense of exaggerated) – and a tragic undertone that works beautifully. A true gem of a movie, at once light and satisfyingly complex.
Particularly dark and funny are the repeated attempts by the 17-year-old protagonist – a lone son to an aristocratic socialite widowed woman – to commit violent suicides. As we learn early on (no great spoiler), these suicides are all carefully staged for the benefit of his mother, who is so used to his daily performances she no longer deigns to pause to acknowledge them. And so we see her chatting away on the phone whilst her son supposedly douses himself in petrol and set himself ablaze; or again the mother casually swimming a few lanes in the pool while the young protagonist lies tragically face down floating in the water.
The kid’s acts could be downright sinister, but the way they are ignored by his mother frames them as darkly funny. They are beautifully performed, desperately childish calls for attention: “Look mother, I’m on fire!”, he seems to say, and “No you’re not dear…You’re not fooling me, I know you’re faking your death, I know it’s all theatre” is her reply.
It reminded me of the relation between the magician and the audience: “Look audience, I am making the coin levitate magically!” “No you’re not dear…we know it's all theatre.” Again and again magicians have to go to great lengths to convince spectators that what they are doing is the “real” thing, though implicit in this very attempt is the knowledge that it’s all staged for the benefit of illusion. Illusion, then, is always a duality, a ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what we see (the object floating impossibly), and what we know (objects do not float impossibly).
As a magician, before you even step on stage, your every action is already seen as fake and theatrical. Yet the job is to persevere, desperately, to convince the audience otherwise: knowing it cannot be done, and to do it anyway. What a way of dying on stage, again and again!