Directed by Robert Altman
Robert Altman’s films seem to buzz. Many of his best ones are ensembles pieces that, with their overlapping and often improvised dialogue, focus on the ambience above any single character. It’s not so much that these movies are about tone, but he most effectively captures the energy of a scene by stepping outside of his protagonists. They walk into a room of gamblers or of songwriters or Vietnam soldiers, and we see how they fit into the broader picture. Who do they interact with? Can we hear what others are saying? The emphasis almost always seems to be on the group or, in some ways, the hive mind.
That’s my impression, at least, but Images is the only horror film I can think of in Altman’s filmography. It’s more psychological thriller than scare-fest, this feels almost exactly like a 70’s Brian De Palma film. It’s frightening but more campy and fun than it is eerie. The horror demands an audience reaction, but the disturbing elements of the film are as likely to make you laugh as they are to put you on edge.
And because of Altman’s lack of apparent sympathy with many of his characters (his lack of sentimentality reminds me of Werner Herzog), Images feels like a knowing nod towards other genres. It’s apparently influenced by films of the French New Wave and by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Like Persona, this is a small, isolated film in which the camera frequently lingers close to the face of the female protagonist as she suffers through a mental illness. Cathryn (Susannah York), is a schizophrenic writer of children’s stories. In the voice in her head is simply her narration of the latest story she’s working on. Soon, however, phone calls begin to morph into new voices. She begins to lose track of who she’s talking to, and when her husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) returns home, he finds that all the phones have been lifted from their receiver so as to prevent any incoming calls.
Cathryn asks Hugh if he’s having an affair, as one of the callers suggested, and soon we will learn that Cathryn herself had an affair three years previously. This fear, like many of her others, is just a projection of her own behavior.
What’s fascinating is that Hugh enters the story under a sinister veil. Because Cathryn wonders if he’s having an affair, we think so too. It’s only as she becomes further removed from reality that Hugh starts to feel like a more sympathetic character. His only transgression is ignoring or simply not noticing his wife’s mental illness, and I can’t tell if this is a sin on his part or because this fracture with reality is so sudden.
In Cathryn’s dissociative (that the right word?) state, she has visions of three people, two of whom are alive and well. One of them, Rene, is her former lover, and the other two, Marcel and Hugh, hangout in the house with her. She begins having visions of her dead ex-lover first, establishing that he is not really there, but soon she has conversations with the other two men, and we start to lose track of who she’s really talking to and if they’re even really there.
Cathryn is losing her sanity, and the movie presents this as a new condition, like everything was fine before the camera started rolling. It’s an interesting representation of the illness, and I’m not sure if it’s simply this sudden for dramatic effect or because… well, I don’t know. I think it’s just to better fit the story.
So, because there seems to be a deliberate misrepresentation of how schizophrenia might work, I take the representation of Cathryn’s mental illness as more symbolic than anything else. She’s a domesticated housewife, the model of a dutiful, loyal servant of a wife who waits at home while Hugh brings back the bacon, and she begins to snap.
So, it’s a story about a domestic way of life turning in on itself, or something like that. Beyond that, Cathryn is haunted by the visions of men in her life, all of whom make a sexual pass at her. There’s even a sequence in which one of the men basically assaults her, and I can’t even remember who it is because we see shots of each of the three men towering over her.
In Images, men are an aggressive, even violent force. The only person whom Cathryn befriends is a young girl, Susannah, who resembles a younger Cathryn with their similarly bright, blonde hair. They develop a relationship somewhere in the middle of a sibling and maternal bond, and in the end Susannah explains that she thinks she will someday grow up to be like Cathryn.
To add to the theme of… well, of people not appearing to be who they are, the cast of Images traded names. Cathryn is played by Susannah York and Susannah is played by Cathryn Harrison. Hugh is played by Rene and Rene is played by Marcel. Then, of course, Marcel is played by Hugh.
The names are interchangeable, and everyone might as well be the same person. After Cathryn kills Rene, or at least her mind’s interpretation of him, she kills Marcel, and then she finally appears to run over and kill herself. It’s not until the very end, however, that she encounters herself again and learns that the person she really ran over was her husband Hugh.
God, this really just feels like a Brian De Palma film. It’s at least something like an experiment for Altman who normally works with large casts and locations. Here it’s just a handful of characters, many playing each other and restrained to an isolated cabin.
This has the syntax of a psychological thriller, and I’m looking for ways in which it might transcend the genre, but I don’t know if it does. I also don’t even know if Altman wanted it to. The greater meaning of the film, perhaps, lies in how it differs from the rest of his films.
The man who made this film seems much more self-serious than the man who made The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Mash, The Player, etc. Images was completed after M.A.S.H., McCabe & Mrs. Miller and before a few more of his most well-known films.
It’s a strange, contained experiment in the midst of the films that helped define his style. So what can we read into Altman’s brief detour from a style he would return to? Maybe it’s just an experiment, or maybe it’s jus to prove that he could make a more conventional film, but Images, I think, is only conventional by today’s standards. The campy thriller must still have been a relatively new concept then as De Palma was still just getting started, aaaaaaannnnddd here I am speculating.
Images is fine. It’s well-made and delightfully absurd, and I suppose that’s all. There are themes of domesticity, of the real danger lying in wait or hidden under some kind of veil. It’s not a monster movie where you can easily discern the danger, but many horror movies revel in this kind of idea.
Up Next: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Coco (2017), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)