Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.
I often have issue with the films of Robert Altman. My biggest issue with him is that his movies are so sprawling that they involve massive casts of characters. It’s hard to keep track of everyone when Altman’s typical film looks like it should be a miniseries. At his best, you get a film like M*A*S*H. At his worst (and yes, this is just my opinion), you get long, drawn-out boring films like Gosford Park that I literally never remember is actually a murder mystery until I see the poster. Images is very much a different thing, since the cast has literally only seven people in it; one of those seven is a voice on the phone and another is barely in the film. That, more than anything, got my interested in seeing the film.
Images is, for lack of a better way to explain it, an experience in schizophrenia through the eyes of the character having that psychotic break with reality. While there are a lot of films and stories to which this can be connected, the most obvious connection is Repulsion, to which this bears a great deal of similarity. It’s also worth noting that there is an odd correlation between the names of the actors and the characters in the film. Each of the five main people in the film has a character name that is the actual name of another member of the cast. That had to be planned, didn’t it?
Cathryn (Susannah York), is working on writing a children’s book one night while home alone. Her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is out for the evening. Cathryn receives a series of telephone calls, some of which break off and change in the middle of the conversation to a completely different person on the other end of the line. These conversations tell Cathryn that Hugh is having an affair. When Hugh gets home, he finds the place a wreck with all of the phones taken off the hooks. As he tries to console his wife, she suddenly sees him as a different man. We learn in time that this man is Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), a former lover of hers who died in a plane crash.
With Cathryn’s nerves shot, she and Hugh head off to an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere in Ireland. These visions don’t stop, though, and while wandering around the house, Hugh frequently morphs into Rene and Cathryn discusses things with him, including his apparent death in the plane crash several years earlier. Things only become more complicated when it turns out that the closest neighbor to the isolated cabin is another of Cathryn’s former lovers, Marcel (Hugh Millais) and his young daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison).
For most of the rest of the film, Cathryn experiences various fugue states where one man suddenly becomes another. Hugh becomes Marcel; Rene appears when Cathryn thinks she is alone in the house. We’re never really sure what is reality and what isn’t, because all of this comes directly from Cathryn’s perspective, and as the film continues on, it becomes clearer and clearer that Cathryn and reality are not really good friends.
Images is interestingly made, albeit slow. There are a few key moments where suddenly the film and the characters spring into something like action, but these are few and far between. Instead, we are much more concerned with what is going on inside Cathryn’s head at any given moment, and because of the story that we are given, it’s never really clear if what is happening there is also happening in the real world. Eventually, Cathryn’s reactions to her hallucinations are much more violent, especially when she starts seeing herself, or a simulacrum of herself, walking around the Irish countryside. Is it real? Is she real? Or has she simply gone swimming in the deep waters of crazy without her life preserver?
There are interesting ideas here, and seeing Altman work with a small cast is particularly interesting. There’s a lot more depth given to the different characters because we are able to spend so much more time with them. This is especially true of Susannah York’s Cathryn, since she is in virtually every shot of the film. And yet, the entire thing remains cunningly off-kilter because we are never sure exactly how much we can trust Cathryn’s perspective on anything.
Images is a good film, and fans of more psychological and slower-developing horror films will find a great deal here to keep them entertained. Those looking for more outright scares and traditional horror may find that the film simply moves too slowly for them to care much about what is happening to anyone on the screen. I, however, enjoyed it pretty well. It’s not going to become my favorite Altman film, nor will it be my favorite slow-burn horror movie, but I think it’s worth tracking down if this is a version of the genre in which you have interest.
Why to watch Images: Altman with a small cast.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty slow for what it is.