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Images (1972) dir: Robert Altman Blu Ray (Arrow Academy)

A blurred line between imagination and reality

Susannah York plays Cathryn, an English writer of children’s fairytales who is clearly coming apart at the seems from a mental health standpoint. For one thing, a phone call with her American photographer husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is interrupted by a mysterious woman’s voice claiming that he is having an affair behind her back. When the latter returns from his business trip, she angrily questions him about what he has been doing while he was away. However, he assures her that he loves only her. They reconcile and kiss. When she looks again at the man who is kissing her, it appears to be her ex-lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi from The French Connection) who perished in a plane crash. She wakes up: it was all a dream.

Susannah York in Images (1972)

Cathryn decides that she has had enough of living in the city and persuades Hugh to return to their country house. Unfortunately, her hallucinations only become more intense. She sees Rene reappearing again and again. She glimpses a mysterious dog following her in the woods surrounding their home. She encounters doppelgängers of herself. Things become even more complicated when Hugh’s friend Marcel (Hugh Millais) shows up with his adolescent daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) in tow - this time presumably for real as they are seen interacting with Hugh. When Marcel begins putting heavy moves on Cathryn when Hugh isn’t around, however, the lines between imagination and reality only become more blurred.

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A missing link in the psychological horror genre

Images is one of the many entries in Robert Altman’s prolific filmography which have been largely forgotten about over the years. In this case, however, that doesn’t mean that it’s one of his lesser films. Watching it nowadays feels very much like rediscovering a near-equidistant missing link between Repulsion (1965) and The Shining (1980). It’s a very clever and meta take on the psychological horror genre - arguably a little too much so at times, but nonetheless delivering plenty of effective chills and even a few playfully droll moments.

It’s littered with fascinating little touches and motifs. York’s character Cathryn, for instance, is heard narrating passages from her children’s book over a number of scenes. The book in question is, in fact, a real-life children’s book called In Search of Unicorns which was written by the actress herself. There are a number of metaphorical images and pieces of writing which clearly nod towards Cathryn being afflicted with a form of schizophrenia. Cathryn regularly sees doppelgänger versions of herself. When she looks at herself in the triple dresser mirror, she sees a different version of herself in each shard. The dangling fragments of wind-chime ornaments regularly loom large in the frame. There’s that ever-present jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table which never quite gets completed. Before Hugh leaves her at a countryside station to go on another of his trips, he regales her with a particularly on-the-nose pun:

“What’s the difference between a rabbit? Neither; one is both of the same!”

The cleverness even extends to the naming of the characters here in relation to the actors playing them: for instance, Susannah York plays a character named Cathryn, whereas Cathryn Harrison plays a character named Susannah! Yet again, it is insinuated that they are all part of the same person. All of this self-conscious meta-cleverness would have quickly become irritating if it weren’t for the fact that Images is such an entertaining and effective little piece of cinema.

A disturbing puzzle of a movie

The film’s uncomfortable vibe is imbued right from the opening credits, which roll over a nerve-jangling John Williams score and montages of York’s character struggling with a mountain of pages from her book (the central motif of certain passages being narrated over the scenes also begins here - again, adding to the strange vibe). A scene where the POV switches between one of her doppelgängers and another - punctuated by a zoom-in towards the first of the two as she is framed in silhouette - is a uniquely dislocating piece of visual storytelling. A rain-drenched night-time drive through a town which appears to be have been made up with colourful decorations commemorating some unnamed festival is hauntingly beautiful. There are also a couple of moments of fairly strong and realistic gore, considering the time period in which it was made.

Acting-wise, the film largely rests on Susannah York’s shoulders - and she does indeed turn in a committed performance. However, while she looks convincingly distraught through much of the runtime, she doesn’t take the easy route of playing the role as a straight clone of the withdrawn Carole (Catherine Deneuve) from Repulsion. She displays an almost sadistic glee in her increasingly aggressive attempts to brush off of the apparitions of former lover Rene, taunting him by repeatedly reminding him that he is dead. These moments when she appears to be asserting control over the situation only serve to highlight how far she removed from reality she has become, thus making the proceedings all the more chilling.

Images isn’t a film for everyone and will doubtless drive some to irritation. However, those who are intrigued by the idea of a smart psychological puzzle layered underneath an effective and unusual horror film should take a look.

Runtime: 101 mins

Dir: Robert Altman

Script: Robert Altman, featuring sections of a novel by Susannah York

Starring: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais, Cathryn Harrison, John Morley

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

This 4K restoration is remarkable considering that the film is around 46 years old now. The visuals are so pristine that it looks like it could have been shot recently. Nearly flawless.

Extras

Audio Commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger

Samm and Kat from Diabolique Magazine talk less about the production background to Images and more about how it fits into Robert Aldrich’s filmography and how it deploys his typical stylistic motifs. The also examine how it fits into various strains of genre cinema such as the French cinéma fantastique, gothic horror, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, the female mental breakdown movie and so on. There’s plenty of interest here but the more casual listener may find themselves feeling somewhat lost amid the constant referencing of other films over the years.

Scene-Select Commentary by Robert Altman

The director himself comments over 35 minutes’ worth of key scenes from the film. Most of what he says is fairly obvious to the attentive viewer - a fact that, on one hand, highlights his skills as a director and on another, makes this extra feel a little unnecessary.

Imagining Images

An interview with Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond - albeit mostly the former. He talks about his approach to filming; he maintains that actors are the most important part of a film as they “bring the third dimension”. To this end, he tends to prefer improvisation rather than rote learning a script as it opens up more possibilities. He also mentions that one of the distinctive sounds in John Williams’ score involved throwing a rock into a piano carcass!

Interview with Cathryn Harrison

A short but sweet six-minute interview with the actress who played the young Suzannah in the film. She discusses how she was cast (Altman met her in a swimming pool while she was on holiday in Spain) and her experiences working with the director and other performers. She finishes by admitting that Altman’s open approach to working with actors had made her into a bit of a “bossy boots” with subsequent directors!

Appreciation by Stephen Thrower

This excellent video essay takes a look at this bizarre entry in Robert Altman’s filmography. Thrower notes with particular amusement the husband character Hugh from the film (who shamelessly torments Cathryn with subtle practical jokes despite her clear mental affliction) as well as recounting his first experiences watching it on pan-and-scan VHS tape. He also broaches the thorny subject of whether this film could be termed horror (coming from a director who is considered by many critics to be “above” such a genre) and comes to the conclusion that yes, it can. As someone who realises that horror isn’t something to be held in contempt, I find his viewpoint immensely satisfying.

Overall:

Images is a film that I’m glad I watched. It’s one of those weird gems littered with subtle clues that seems to beg repeated viewings. The audio-visual qualities of this release are also top-notch.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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