Robert Altman‘s Images has often been described as a tale of madness or a reflection of the creative process, given that Cathryn (Susannah York) is a writer working on a new book. In fact, York narrates her own “In Search of Unicorns” throughout the film, adding an element of fantasy to go along with the film’s already supernatural plotting. No matter the reading one applies to Images, it stands out as one of Altman’s best works. Inspired by Persona – Altman himself says it was more influential for him on this film than it was for him on 3 Women – it follows as Cathryn is haunted by visions. As she goes through life with her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), she sees her dead lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), her ex-lover Marcel (Hugh Millais), and her own doppelganger. As Marcel brings his daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) to visit Hugh and Cathryn at their cottage (“Green Cove”), he appears both in reality and in her mind. Killing them off helps, but telling the difference between the real figures and her image of them is near impossible.
Altman plays with many ideas in Images, including identity especially in how Cathryn views herself and how she views those around her. Upon arriving at Green Cove, the camera switches perspectives, showing her looking down at the house from a nearby cliff as a car pulls up and she herself emerges from the car in long shot. Cutting to the version of her by the car, the film picks up the action from there and leaves a Cathryn on the hill and a Cathryn bringing in their belongings to the cottage. The other Cathryn and possibly even another Hugh are out there. She is both herself and a reflection of herself – Altman and DP Vilmos Zsigmond often show mirrors, reflections, windows, and cameras, a great encapsulation of this reality – as Altman explores how she views herself (literally and figuratively) as well as alternative paths. In terms of exploring an artist’s creative process, it is as though Cathryn envisions how to write her life, losing herself in the fantasy of her story, and imagining separate paths for herself or her story to take, all the while losing sight of reality. Guilt is a key piece of Images as Cathryn grapples with her adultery, fears Hugh doing the same (receiving a mysterious phone call, perhaps from herself about him with another woman), and as she struggles to cut off her lovers and embrace Hugh as she wants. It is as though her subconscious is punishing her, with Altman toying with these Freudian ideas and views of self-identity. It is her lust and forbidden desires fighting what she consciously wants, a fight against herself and her own mind for control of what route her own story should take.
As a representation of a fractured person, Images is exceptional. Relationship-wise, Cathryn dates many men and, at times, can hardly tell the difference between them. Visually, she is shown in multiple mirrors at once or overlapped with her reflection. Mentally, she is unsure of whether she is real – maybe her doppelganger is her true self. This character study plays like a jigsaw puzzle, one where a few pieces are missing in a hidden spot and where it would be considered cheating to start with the border. Altman uses a motif of a puzzle that Cathryn works on with Susannah – the latter of whom is naturally a vision of what Cathryn looked like at age 12 – that is very clearly of Green Cove, but which Cathryn repeatedly states she has no idea what is of, despite the clear clues and having completed it before. The reveal of an additional feature that blurs the reality of that picture once completed serves as a perfect representation of how Images views identity. A person is not all that they seem on the surface, reality is not necessarily reality, and fiction is (horrifyingly) not always fiction, all overlapping into the same puzzle that is Cathryn’s mind, a puzzle where she cannot put everything together, cannot see clearly, and struggles to piece together with a border (or, in this case, a defined plane of reality).
The complexity of Images stands as a large part of what makes it so alluring and thrilling, but the brilliance of the film extends beyond this quality. Even the casting adds to the film with the five main actors all swapping names around. Susannah York is Cathryn, Cathryn Harrison is Susannah; Rene Auberjonois is Hugh, Hugh Millais is Marcel, and Marcel Bozzuffi is Rene. Not only is this a perfect representation of the film’s themes, but the actors are all terrific. The men are interchangeable in Cathryn’s mind, while she is a reflection of young Susannah and vice versa. The setting, too, works wonders with this old-age home, a secluded location, and the fall setting in, adding to the autumn vibe of Images. It is maybe not the scariest film of all-time, but it exudes the right energy for a horror film, especially one that is so introspective as this, with the isolation adding to Cathryn’s plight. Often, she looks for others to confirm what she suspects to be true, but has no bearings here and is left to her own devices, an often faulty metric.
Images also comes as one of Altman’s many collaborations with Vilmos Zsigmond and features a similar touch they provided on McCabe & Mrs. Miller as they overexpose the film to create a dreamy appearance. It gives it an otherworldly feeling right when it needs it, as though one is viewing an image of an image that has occurred in a separate reality, an ideal quality for this film. Using those aforementioned visual motifs as well as plentiful zooms and point-of-view shots, Zsigmond brings the themes to life as well as the characters. The zooms into close-ups or those point-of-view shots allow the audience into the mind of Cathryn very effectively, revealing the horror or split reality of her life as she focuses in (shown as a zoom with her reaction in close-up) on what she suspects is happening. The score from John Williams and the sounds added by Stomu Yamashta further add to the film’s considerable atmosphere. The heavy notes and eeriness imbued by Williams as well as the motif of a chandelier with miniature figures of the light fixtures heard rustling in the background are both great features. The score, of course, adds to the dread and terror that Cathryn feels with suspense building with each note before a reveal or as she lashes out (Williams mirrors Bernard Herrmann‘s Psycho at times in the moments of violence) at her visions. The sounds from Yamashta benefit the otherworldly quality, calling attention to the visual motifs while adding to the chaos of her mind with a constant background noise clouding her thoughts.
Robert Altman may not be known for horror films, but Images embodies everything that makes his work so captivating. Artistically perfect, frightening, and possessing great performances, sound, and cinematography, Images rarely puts a foot wrong. It is a personal favorite, a perfect representation of both the fall atmosphere and of psychological horror, dropping the viewer into the mind of Cathryn as she sorts through what is happening in her life. Self-identity is at the heart of Images, examining one’s own reflection and coming to terms with what one sees, and in Cathryn’s case, she is often horrified by what terror has manifested itself all around her. Ghosts of herself and lifestyle haunt her, forcing her right over the brink of insanity.