Misunderstood and Abandoned
Robert Altman”s “Images” is a drama about a woman going through hallucination and nearing madness in Ireland. The film looks at the effects of permissiveness on a hidebound, repressed nature and it is a probing insight into mental disorder.
Cathryn (Susannah York) is writing a fairy tale for children about mysterious woods and a unicorn that acts as a counterpoint to her losing touch with reality. She imagines phone calls saying her husband is with another woman and when they go to their country house for the weekend two men in her life intrude as imaginary, or, in one case, real. York shows the intensity and innocence that is marked by strain as well as sensual underpinnings, and brings off the final denouement with restraint and potency.
This is a small film that unfortunately was ignored because of its confusing story and unexplained conclusions about what’s real or fantasy. It’s taken from a work written by Altman and by actress Susannah York’s story “In Search of Unicorns” which she wrote while the film was in production but also managed to find its way into the plot. It was shot by master cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who made good use of his misty Ireland landscape shots. John Williams gave an eerie score, in which he collaborated with avant-garde percussionist Stomu Yamashta. Much of the story seems autobiographical, though Altman uses set pieces of shock from the thriller genre to maximize the subject’s predicament and keep it from being merely an exercise in art house film-making.
It’s a very challenging film that is heavy on symbolism and motifs and has a nonlinear plotline. Cathryn finds herself isolated in a remote country home where she’s writing her children’s book “In Search of Unicorns” For whatever reason, she begins to suspect that her marriage to the aloof Hugh (René Auberjonois) is in trouble after receiving a mysterious late night phone call from a woman friend who tells her Hugh is not home because he’s with another woman. When Hugh returns at 4 am, he says that this is nonsense, and tunes his wife’s nagging concerns out. He is more interested in his hobbies of photography and hunting.
Left alone, Cathryn begins losing it and encounters her double while wandering the countryside. She begins to have distorted visions of a former lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), who was killed years ago in a plane crash. There are several other troubling incidents such as a family friend, Marcel (Hugh Millais), who visits with his 12-year-old daughter Susannah. She tells Cathryn she wants to grow up to be like her, while the Marcel makes it plain he desires Cathryn. By the time an old man walking his dog approaches her cottage, Cathryn has gone over the edge and all the men appear as one leaving her unsure of which one she is with. There’s also the question about blood on the Persian rug and the growing violence in her visions. It’s hard for us or Cathryn to tell whether any of these things happening are real or imaginary. The fragmented style is surely not for everyone but I was fascinated and found the screenplay to be intelligent with a brave look at a disturbed inner world. The acting is excellent all around.
In 1971, “Images” premiered at Cannes and Susannah York won the award for best actress. However, audiences were confused by this complex film. The film never achieved a normal American commercial release. It is an intelligently constructed and spectacularly well-photographed film and has the Altman stamp but it just was not a success. “Images” is a very atypical Altman film in which the dialog doesn’t overlap, and the visual style is more lyrical at some times and jagged at others.
There’s an especially good use of images to suggest Cathryn’s confusion over time and real events. Those who love Altman will want to see this. Its very differences with most of Altman’s work help illuminate his style, and he tells a well-constructed narrative. It also shows him in inventive collaboration with actress York, whose children’s book about unicorns is read on the sound track and supplies her character with an alternate fantasy universe in which strange creatures and legends replace the challenges of real life. The film is a technical success but not quite an emotional one.