“I’m not going to be able to finish this puzzle. There’s too many pieces missing.” The puzzle that Susannah refers to is a jigsaw with no picture to guide the construction, of a house painted yellow, a colour sometimes regarded as denoting madness. Her friend Cathryn suggests they do the edges first to make it easier, but Susannah resists.
Maybe she does not want to make it too easy, or perhaps she doesn’t wish the puzzle to be solved, but one thing is certain; she says when she grows up she is going to be just like Cathryn, something she desires with all the pure and untarnished devotion of a child, but were the true and complete picture to be revealed it might not be so attractive.
Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1972 and released later that year, Robert Altman’s Images has been remastered for Blu-ray by Arrow Films, an understated psychological horror that remains an enigma over forty five years after it first baffled audiences and critics.
Known for the large ensemble casts and interweaving narratives of the films on which Altman had made his name such as 1970’s M*A*S*H and to which he would return in The Long Goodbye (1974) and Nashville (1975) and throughout his career which would see critical acclaim for The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, Images is atypical, abstract and minimalist with only five prominent characters but carrying the same loose narrative structure.
Already a star and a highly regarded actress from roles in The Killing of Sister George and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? for which she had won a BAFTA for best supporting actress, Susannah York is Cathryn, married to businessman Hugh (Altman regular René Auberjonois, early in a career which has taken him from under the sea to Deep Space Nine), seemingly happy but appearances can be deceptive.
Composing a children’s book, In Search of Unicorns, the text of which was provided by York herself and later published, a waste basket of discarded sheets sits beside her, the pages of her own life are torn up and crumpled and overwritten, lying to herself and those around her, slipping into memories as easily as walking into a room until she is unable to tell what is real and what is imagination.
Retreating to an isolated cottage in the hills by the lake with Hugh, she is plagued by the ghost of her former lover, René (The French Connection‘s Marcel Bozzuffi), dead in a plane crash three years before, and there is an unexpected visit from Marcel (The Wicked Lady‘s Hugh Millais), a more recent lover who is pushing to rekindle their relationship, recently divorced and with a young daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) who both looks up to Susannah and reflects her.
Images repeat, such as the blood on the rug, the cameras around the house are designed to capture images, the image of Susannah’s face is superimposed over Cathryn’s in the car window, the shifting tones of the film carried by the soundtrack of discordant noise and ethereal wind chimes by John Williams and percussionist Stomu Yamashta; reality receding, is the doppelgänger Cathryn’s idealised self or a side of herself she fears?
A showcase for York who won best actress at Cannes, Cathryn is needy and flighty, passionate and conflicted, her mental state at odds with the beautiful surround, the film shot in County Wicklow in Ireland although the setting is not stated in the film, Altman deliberately using American vehicles to indicate this may indeed be another place, the audience as lost as the characters.
Abstract and dreamlike in structure and presentation with cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond who would later win an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Images echoes in the work of David Lynch, particularly Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire with impossible phone calls, swapped identities, characters watching different versions of themselves from a distance and the scant clues given to the viewer though they become more apparent on repeat viewings.
This new edition featuring an archive interview with Altman, he is entertaining and informative as he discusses the collaborative production, his performers given “space and opportunity” to improvise as they created their own characters and dialogue around the framework he conceived, though he remains in charge: “It’s not a democracy, but there’s no single author.”
Also included are an interview with Harrison, recalling happy memories of the shoot and her friendships with the cast, an insightful appreciation by Stephen Thrower, a commentary by film critics Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, and also a condensed version of the key scenes of the film with commentary by Altman himself which makes explicit the meaning of the film, filling in the missing pieces.