I have a good friend whose encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – both classic and contemporary – is frightening. In the same way that I was stimulated by the forthright views of the late Alexander Walker, the legendary film critic of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, I frequently find my friend’s judgement equally thought provoking: we may not always agree, but his recommendations never make for anything less than invigorating viewing. So when he gave me a copy of the film Images to watch I knew, if nothing else, that the experience would prove memorable. Even this though did not prepare me for this uniquely bizarre film. Directed by Robert Altman, starring the enigmatic Susannah York and written by them both, Images feels at times like a collection surreal vignettes brought alive with an Oscar nominated soundtrack by John Williams.
There are a number of elements which combine to sear the vision of Images on the memory. Neither Altman nor York were personalities who liked to play safe where their professional paths were concerned. However, though offbeat work choices paid off for Altman, it was not always so with York. In a directorial career which spanned over fifty years and encompassed everything from episodic segments on the 50s television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents to such films as the acidic period mystery Gosford Park (2001), Altman won critical and public accolades in equal measure, resulting in seven Academy Award nominations and an honorary Oscar in 2006 for his contribution to the film industry. Constantly in demand as a director until he died at the age of eighty one, his often groundbreaking work was never anything short of controversial.
The main body of York’s work may have been equally unconventional but she did not achieve the same degree of acceptance and recognition, either with the public or her industry peers. Oscar nominated and star of numerous renowned productions such as A Man For All Seasons (1966), as well as mainstream blockbusters like Superman (1978) and its followup two years later, she frequently experienced fallow periods in her lengthy career, never attaining the status of her contemporaries like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Despite this, when she immersed herself fully in a role, such as the edgy Cathryn in Images, her impact on the screen was equal to anything Altman realised behind the camera.
Cathryn (York) is a young woman on the verge of a breakdown. Convinced that her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is having an affair, and haunted by visions from her own past relationships, she insists that Hugh takes her to their country house to escape the suffocating confines of the city. However, once ensconced in their remote retreat and isolated from the world outside, Cathryn’s fragile mental state begins to crumble with catastrophic results.
Images is the perfect example of the psychological horror film which was popular during the 60s and early 70s, often focusing on confused, isolated and vulnerable women, as in Hammer Films’ atmospheric chiller Taste of Fear (1961) or director Roman Polanski’s shocker Repulsion (1965). The real magic of Images though comes from the way it forces the viewer to question not just Cathryn’s tenuous grip on reality, but also their own. As various characters – husbands, lovers, even children (?) – both past and present, flit in and out of her daily experience, you yourself are forced to query whether who or what you are seeing on the screen is real or imaginary. By the end you are left in as much of a state of bemusement – and shock – as Cathryn herself.
These various factors aside it is without doubt the film’s visuals which stun. From Cathryn and Hugh’s city home – situated in some nameless urban jungle – to their country retreat amidst a mountainous moorland tinted with the wild romanticism of rural Wales or Scotland, the film’s lack of clarity in relation to the specific locations of these places simply adds to its enigmatic feeling overall, as well as more specifically to Cathryn’s sense of disjointedness. Many of the interiors where much of the drama plays out are coloured in varying degrees of calming sanatorium blandness and designer shades of rustic off white, which simply serve to highlight Cathryn’s brittle state of mind. At one point when she is cleaning down a blood smeared kitchen wall – the result of one of the graphically visceral incidents (real and imaginary) which periodically pepper the plot – her efforts are emphasised by a lone bottle of tomato sauce on a bench, its redness standing out in stark relief against the whitewashed stone of the room.
Images is a film with which both Altman and York should have been immensely satisfied – though the end result will doubtlessly leave you, the viewer, yearning to experience more from both.