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Robert Altman’s ‘Images’

by Glenn Erickson Mar 17, 2018

 

Do we sometimes ‘grow into’ movies? This one now plays like a minor masterpiece. ‘Seventies auteur Robert Altman proves himself an expert practitioner of psychological hallucinations, in an intense tale of a schizophrenic children’s author who can’t keep her husband and two (imagined?) lovers sorted out. It’s one of the best, and best-looking puzzle pictures ever.


Images
Blu-ray
Arrow Academy
1972 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 101 min. / Street Date March 20, 2018 / Available from Arrow Video
Starring: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais, Cathryn Harrison, John Morley.
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Film Editor: Graeme Clifford
Original Music: John Williams
From a novel by Susannah York
Produced by Tommy Thompson
Written for the screen and Directed by
Robert Altman

 

Perhaps Robert Altman’s Images should be elevated to a higher roost in his esteemed filmography. Perhaps his most cinematic movie — in terms of his formal use of the image, anyway — it lodges us inside the subjective experience of its leading lady, and doesn’t let go. Only a couple of minutes pass before we realize that what might seem a horror film is really a good puzzle picture about schizophrenia, experienced from the inside out. Susannah York gives an impressive, personalized performance as a woman so mentally fractured that determining what is real and what is not has become a fruitless quest.

Cathryn (Susannah York) is finishing a children’s book about a magical land called Umb, but is losing control over her own reality. She can’t distinguish between her suspicions and what she sees and hears, and she begins to seriously confuse her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois of M*A*S*H) with her other lover Marcel (Hugh Millais of McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and a third, French lover named Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi of The French Connection) who would seem to have come back from the dead. Hugh takes Cathryn away for a rest break at their country home, but the hallucinations only grow more acute.

 

“Oh, we’re in for one of those movies”, I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgängers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren’t there at all, or are taking the place of real people. The movie is a little forbidding until Susannah York’s sensitive performance begins to sink in. These Twilight Zone– inflected weird tales often disappoint, ending up with a trite twist of fate, or folding in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images carries its thoughtful premise all the way.

Ms. York makes the delicate, disturbed Cathryn into someone we can care about. Although the two films have similarities, she’s not a copy of Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s horror classic Repulsion. Cathryn wanders about her house not as an incommunicative zombie, but as someone who has lost control of her environment. Convinced that her phantom lovers are not real, she eventually resolves to destroy them, a particularly bad idea. If things are so turned around that one cannot tell what’s what and who’s who, there’s no telling what one might shoot. The film has a sickly suspenseful section when we become convinced that Cathryn may really have murdered someone, and only thinks that that bloody corpse on her floor is a mirage. Images may not be a horror film, but at this point it touches heavily upon the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart.

 

Cathryn’s problem is psychological and neck-deep in sex issues. Her husband patronizes and ignores her. His best friend Marcel molests her at every opportunity — unless that’s only phantom behavior, in which case Cathryn actively fantasizes that he’s molesting her. She does feel certain that her old boyfriend Rene is a ghost. He has a nasty habit of suddenly turning into her husband or speaking with her husband’s voice. Half the time she can’t even tell who she’s talking to. As we strain to figure out the film’s sly web of logic, neither can we.

To further scramble identities, screenwriter Altman has chosen to give the actors’ first names — Cathryn, Susannah, Hugh, Marcel & Rene — to the characters, but first mixes them up. It’s one of the few gimmicks that seems forced. Cathryn periodically narrates the text of the children’s fantasy she is writing, Tolkien-like prose imposes another layer of unreality on her predicament. It’s heard as voiceover, even when she’s sleeping in the car. Potential symbols come at us from all sides as well: birds that cannot be caught, puzzles that won’t go together, various lenses, cameras and ‘seeing’ devices. Cathryn is bothered by numerous animals — sheep, dogs, a stuffed elk’s head.

Cathryn is not having a good time at the center of this confusion. She’s sexually involved with all three men, at least inside her own head. She also has a dreaded fear of a sinister doppelgänger copy of herself. If we read the film literally, it’s possible that Cathryn never reaches the country estate, but stays in the heather while the copy takes over for her. Marcel’s daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) looks enough like Cathryn to be yet another iteration of her. Cathryn even remarks on the likeness.

 

Altman the director infuses his scenes with oddness without resorting to telltale spooky genre visuals or giveaway camera angles. The setting is very real and tactile. Vilmos Zsigmond’s restrained cinematography renders the lush Irish countryside and the well-appointed house so well, we believe everything we see. In general there are no story tricks — no essentials are withheld from our view. The conclusion doesn’t hang on some silly narrative dodge, as in a Shayamalan story. That doesn’t mean that we should trust anything that Cathryn hears or sees, however.

The saving grace of Images are its honest performances. The inattentive husband and the aggressive lovers are truly maddening characters. Rene Auberjonois is dapper but dismissive, while the phantom Rene and the brutish Marcel put up a constant harassment. The lovers’ appearances and disappearances give the poor woman no peace. At one point Rene is the one to find a missing bottle of wine for Cathryn; sometimes Hugh is in the same frame with Rene but doesn’t see him. We soon decide that Cathryn was probably involved with Rene before he died, and is perhaps projecting her own desires onto Marcel. But nothing is for certain. Altman doesn’t let us settle on any one interpretation of Cathryn’s sex life — especially when she unaccountably welcomes these phantom lovers into her bed.

 

The peering lens of Vilmos Zsigmond floats casually through the country house, while Altman uses uses the misdirection of a magician to make surprises leap out from the wide frame. If their work were any less inspired, Images could be very dull indeed. As it is, it’s almost as entertaining as Altman’s more playful story of twisted psychology and identity swapping, the later 3 Women.

The acting is all good, but Susannah York is remarkable. She never seems anything less than natural. More than once she lets loose with a distinctive, non-starlet scream that will set your teeth on edge. In one excellent scene, after a terrible fright, she begs her husband to make love to her, as if doing so will lift ‘the curse.’ I’ve never seen a moment like that work so well.

John Williams’ interesting score is highlighted with the strange audio design featuring ‘sounds’ by Stomu Yamash’ta. At times the soundtrack bursts with exotic noises that evoke the Toho ghost story omnibus Kwaidan. But the weird string plucks and percussion hits don’t dominate the track, or occur when we expect them. It’s a great progressive score.

Even when the mystery appears to be solved we’re at a loss to assemble Cathryn’s fragmented hallucinations into a complete picture puzzle. Perhaps she remains an enigma because we’re never really released from her subjective point of view. Images certainly shows Altman reaching in a different direction than his bigger ‘circus’ movies, the ones with the large ensemble casts.


 

Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of Images does good things for Altman’s movie, which I previously thought would only play well in a theater, on a large screen. The HD image renders Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography so cleanly, we’re soon pulled into Cathryn’s ‘enclosed space’ of psychological confinement. Zsigmond leaves most of his filter tricks and image degradation exercises behind. His zooms are unobtrusive; the Panavision frame keeps giving us visual clues to Cathryn’s state of mind. One early scene shows Cathryn busying herself in the kitchen while the fireplace she has just lit spills smoke all over the living room. Has she made a simple mistake, or is she so attention-addled that she’s unaware of what’s happening around her. Some of the early identity swaps between Hugh and Rene are baffling because we can’t nail down a ‘pattern’ of madness, a bold borderline — there’s no trigger exclaiming, ‘reality stops here.’ For a few minutes the show is a creepy bedroom farce: are none of those ‘extra’ lovers real, or is Hugh going to catch Cathryn en flagrante?

Arrow’s new 4K restoration brings more color back to the show. The Irish location is lush and green, and the ‘country getaway house’ is really a small mansion on property only a billionaire could afford now. Perhaps the cleanest cinematic setup we see comes when Cathryn looks down at the house, from at least a mile away. She sees a duplicate of herself arriving in the driveway, driving a duplicate of her car. It’s broad daylight and there’s no rational explanation. Even Cathryn must be aware that she’s stark raving nuts.

Arrow’s extras add some new items to existing commentaries and interviews from Robert Altman. He’s more enthusiastic about this picture than some others — it’s a personal project from his own screenplay that took several years to launch. One failed version was to be shot in Italy, starring Sophia Loren. Altman really didn’t want his show to fall through — when York said she was pregnant, he said working around that would be no problem. Learning that Ms. York was finishing a children’s book, he immediately incorporated it into the film’s ‘fabric.’

Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger provide an analytical commentary, while Lucio Fulci and Jesüs Franco chronicler (and musician) Stephen Thrower offers a video appreciation. A new interview lets us meet Cathryn Harrison, who talks about how she was hired and about the actor-character name swap — did that cause any confusion on the set?

I was especially attracted to Images this time because of how well Altman and Zsigmond work together. This is not the ‘hose down the set with a zoom lens’ approach of some later Altman films. The mix of subjective viewpoints and character identity swaps is subtle and unforced — nothing is arbitrary or artsy for its own sake. It’s a particularly good film for Vilmos Zsigmond, who is operating at peak creativity.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Images
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, Scene-select commentary by writer-director Robert Altman; Interview with Robert Altman, Brand new interview with actor Cathryn Harrison, An appreciation by musician and author Stephen Thrower, Theatrical trailer. Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Carmen Gray and an extract from Altman on Altman.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2018
(5669imag)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.