20th Mar2018

‘Images’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais, Cathryn Harrison | Written by Robert Altman, Susannah York | Directed by Robert Altman


One night, children’s author Cathryn (Susannah York) is home alone when she receives a mysterious call claiming that her husband is in a hotel room with another woman. This cruel rumour triggers a wave of paranoia in Cathryn that will plunge her into the mouth of madness.

Cathryn insists that she and husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) escape to their cottage retreat. Once there, the hallucinations begin. Cathryn’s anxiety has followed them. Before long, other characters enter the mix: Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), the ghost of an old lover; Marcel (Hugh Millais), a passionate brute; and Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), Marcel’s daughter, and the very image of Cathryn herself.

Spatial and temporal rules break down. At any one time each of the men, who are apparently interchangeable, may pop in or out of existence, variably visible or invisible to the others. The effect is devastating to Cathryn. She can’t trust her senses. She gradually steels herself to their expectations of her; their aggressive demands. If the men are products of her imagination, does that make her terribly vulnerable or terribly powerful?

Robert Altman wrote and directed this psychological horror after McCabe and Mrs Miller, and like that film it’s a genre-twisting work whose themes are explored in rural isolation. Other than that, Images couldn’t be more of a departure. It’s clearly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but in there too are shades of Don’t Look Now (the middle-class retreat triggering madness) and Rosemary’s Baby (the anxiety about traditional feminine roles). I was also reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in terms of a character’s psychology altering their perception (and even the identities) of those around them.

Production on Images was unusually collaborative, with Altman’s barebones script fleshed out by the players on set. The children’s story that Cathryn reads to us throughout (written by York herself) brings a kind of majesty to her mundane, lifeless life. It’s never completely clear whether the apparitions conjured by Cathryn (if that’s what they are) are born of boredom or trauma or pure fantasy.

All we know about the three men who torment Cathryn comes from Cathryn herself. Is it true that Hugh can’t have children? Or is Cathryn creating the randy Rene to feel less guilt about her own barrenness? Could Rene be the fantastical incarnation of Marcel, a man for whom Cathryn feels a forbidden animal lust? It’s a truly ambiguous film, and a mostly unpredictable one – until the final act, anyway. Numerous films since have rendered the final twist a foregone conclusion, but it’s still impactful.

“You’re a schizo!” cries Marcel, to which Cathryn replies, “You just don’t understand women.” It could be argued that Altman’s is a somewhat dated depiction of hysterical femininity. It might easily embolden the myth that women don’t really know what they want moment to moment, and men – here, sexually aggressive to the extreme, I might add – are the victims of uniquely female psychological fickleness. At least Altman takes the matter seriously. These days, the setup would be played as a comedy.

In many ways, the psych-horror genre is ideally suited to Altman’s filmmaking impulses: his precision use of space and colour; his unconventional approach to editing; his mumbled, indistinct dialogue. Aiding him are a couple of legends: DOP Vilmos Zsigmond captures the damp browns and greens of the Irish outback, dwarfing the crumbling little humans in great swells of indifferent nature; and John Williams provides the Oscar-nominated score, a rattling Pendereckian nightmare.

Altman uses a variety of methods to create unease. Take his use of sound. At one point, he replaces the growl of a car engine with the sound of howling wind. But it’s the act of looking where he really nails it. Cathryn’s fractured sense of perspective makes us uncomfortably aware of our own gaze. Could we be Cathryn, looking at herself? She seems to address the lens more than once. The identity crisis even extends beyond the inner world of the film, as each character is named after one of the actors in the cast.

The rabbit hole goes deeper. If you cannot tell reality from fantasy, how do you know what really matters? What has real-world impact if the real world can’t be ascertained? Cathryn ends up believing she can kill without repercussions because those she chooses to kill are not real, so not really dead… right? Cathryn’s transition is from excessive nervousness (i.e. everything matters) to excessive self-confidence (i.e. nothing matters). Perhaps this is true madness.

Living with someone with a mental illness is tiring, frustrating, unpredictable, exciting, aggravating – and Altman’s film reflects all that. Images is absorbing, but also distancing. Too cold and surreal, perhaps, to match the more manageable horror giants of its era; and too similar to Persona to fully step out of its shadow. Images is a fascinating film; not much fun, but endlessly debatable. And thanks to Arrow Academy, the debate can go on.

Extras include a commentary from Samm Deighton and Kat Elinger of Diaboliques magazine, and a selected scene commentary from Altman. There are extended interviews with Altman, actor Cathryn Harrison and author Stephen Thrower. Also included is a theatrical trailer.

Images is out on Arrow Academy Blu-ray now.


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