Robert Altman, 1972
Starring: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Cathryn Harrison
Cathryn, a newly pregnant children’s author, is home alone and receives some upsetting phone calls from a strange woman who claims that Cathryn’s husband Hugh is out having an affair. Hugh calls to say he’ll be late and Cathryn panics. He comes home soon after, confused about her anxiety and sudden breakdown. Chalking it up to her pregnancy, he decides that they should take a vacation at their beautiful, isolated country home. Here, things get worse and Cathryn begins to see and talk to her dead lover, René, who died in a plane crash. Hugh is obvious to her growing insanity and to the aggressive advances from their neighbor, Marcel. Marcel has brought his young daughter, Susannah, and she and Cathryn become good friends. This positive relationship does not help her mind from unravelling and soon she believes she has killed someone, but can’t be sure what is real.
One of Altman’s most ignored films, I don’t understand why Images hasn’t gotten more attention, because it’s certainly a masterpiece. A beautiful, subtle, eerie, and dreamlike film, it bears elements in common with Roman Polanski’s loose trilogy, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant, as well as psychological horror like Don’t Look Now, Full Circle, or Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. As with several of the characters in these films, we don’t learn much about Cathryn’s past or the source of her neurosis. Altman has acknowledge the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and the similarities are clear, but feel fresh. As with Persona, Cathryn is constantly subjected to doubles of both the men in her life and her self, in mirror images, reflections, lenses, shadows, and her imagination.
Altman made a few other strange films about women succumbing to madness, such as 3 Women and That Cold Day in the Park. As with those films, it is almost impossible to separate Cathryn’s memories from her daily reality, or her motivations, fears, and desires, which are all inextricably linked together. And that is the genius of Images. It doesn’t matter why Cathryn feels guilt or how she has been traumatized. What is more important here is the journey into madness and the way it transforms her, much like the earlier Persona.
The incredible cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond is another of the film’s crowning achievements and in a way, reminds me of the pastoral Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, though Images is far more beautiful, if not outright painterly. Zsigmond also worked with Altman on The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as well as with several other directors. The rain and mist-drenched Irish countryside is a perfect setting and appears either lush and lovely, or ominous and isolated.
Cathryn’s voice overs, where she narrates the children’s book she is writing, were a powerful touch and give the film an additional layer of fantasy and fairytale. The book was actually written by star Susannah York. Some other aspects of York’s real life were portrayed in the film, such as her pregnancy. When she almost dropped out of the project because of it, Altman simply added it to the script. The combination of Cathryn’s pregnancy and her bond with the young Susannah add a further layer to the film, one that ties back in with the themes of childhood and fantasy. This fairytale symbolism is strongly contrasted with the building threat of violence and unpredictability, as well as the sexual scenes that suddenly appear just as quickly break off when Cathryn responds with horror and repulsion.
Dizzyingly, characters and actors share names; Susannah, Cathryn, Rene, Hugh, and Marcel are all mixed between the five principle actors. Star Susannah York (The Fall of the House of Usher, Battle of Britain) is the film’s focal point and gives a powerful performance as a woman descending into insanity, frame by frame. René Auberjonois (MASH, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) is her clueless, carefree husband Hugh, Marcel Bozzuffi (Le deuxième souffle, The French Connection) is her dead, French lover, and Hugh Millais (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dogs of War) is particularly terrifying as her aggressive neighbor, Marcel. The young Cathryn Harris (Black Moon), looking remarkably like a younger York, is excellent as Susannah, Marcel’s daughter who quickly bonds with Cathryn.
Images will reward the patient viewer and though it may not be the most conventional film, has a lot going for it. This is the type of film that is worth viewing multiple times, mostly due to the visual and emotional layers that are so rich, it would be impossible to catch everything the first time around. There’s also a wonderful score from John Williams. A blend of ethereal, sinister, and atmospheric, it’s one of his finest scores.
Images is available on DVD, though I’d like to see a Blu-ray Altman box set sometime soon. It comes with the highest possible recommendation.