Wednesday 21 March 2018

IMAGES (1972)

Directed by: Robert Altman, Starring: Susannah York, Rene
Auberjonois. Horror. UK 1972, 141mins, Cert 15. 
Once thought lost (Columbia Pictures were rumoured to have burned the original negatives) Robert Altman’s early 70’s improvisational foray into psychological horror re-emerges like a phoenix from the (non-incinerated) ashes in an Arrow Films exclusive brand new 4k restoration from the original negative.

Cathryn (Susannah York), a schizophrenic children’s author, persuades her photographer and keen hunter husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) to escape for a break to her childhood home in the rural Irish countryside after an anonymous phone caller suggests Hugh is having an affair. Meanwhile, Cathryn’s own former French lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) – who died 3-years previously in a plane crash – is rather disturbingly popping up all over the house, sometimes seamlessly interchanging with her husband in the blink of an eye. And then there’s her husband’s friend Marcel (Hugh Millais), who surreptitiously gropes Cathryn at every (in) opportune moment whilst whispering sexually suggestive invitations only just out of earshot of his 12 year-old daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) – who in turn just might be a younger image of Cathryn herself. No wonder poor Cathryn is having a mental breakdown, or is all of this just imaginary symptoms of her unravelling mind?

Visually there’s much to admire in Altman’s experimental hybrid fusing of art house inspirations such as Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, with the tropes of the psychological thriller. Together with his revered cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Altman pulls off some extraordinary cinematic flourishes such as the unsettling in-camera Bavaesque trickery interchanging husband and former (dead) lover. Another hauntingly memorable sequence involves Susannah York’s Cathryn standing on a hill top observing a mirror image of herself arriving at the house down in the valley below. Altman then cuts to this alternative Cathryn looking up to the horizon and making out the silhouetted figure of herself staring back down at her. Altman and Zsigmond make the most of the lush canvas of Irish landscape, including a striking waterfall which proves to be both an ethereally beautiful location whilst instilled with a foreboding foreshadowing √† la DON’T LOOK NOW which would follow in 1973. 

Susannah York (deservedly) won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her extraordinary portrayal of the psychologically haunted children’s author. York, pregnant whilst filming, narrated from her own work: ‘In Search of Unicorns’ during the film, lending an autobiographical layer to the proceedings as well as the fantasy symbolism which Altman incorporates into the piece.

My patience was at time stretched by some of the mundane dialogue: “This is the first time I’ve had a tomato sandwich”, “Do you like it?”, “Yeah”. I also laughed out loud when Cathryn runs terrified whilst being pursued by a harmless tail-wagging King Charles spaniel (even if the canine may well be a doggy doppelg√§nger). When he isn’t photographing decapitated wildlife, Rene Auberjonois (probably best known for ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’), spends most of the film with a cigar in his mouth naively unaware of his wife’s shattering sanity, of being cuckolded (mentally at the very least) by both the living and the dead, and worse of all, telling jokes which wouldn’t pass muster with Christmas cracker manufacturer’s quality control standards.

Cameras, lenses and binoculars are constantly within frame, symbolising Cathryn’s creeping paranoia, as we the watcher also observe her through the film lens, thereby making us complicit voyeurs. The onscreen interchanging of husband Hugh with her deceased lover Rene is playfully mirrored in the names of the casts’ characters: Rene  Auberjonois (‘Hugh’), Hugh Millais (‘Marcel), Marcel Bozzuffi (‘Rene’). Even Susannah York (‘Cathryn’) and Cathryn Harrison (‘Susannah’) are in on the in-joke.

Wind chimes jangle and an abundance of symmetry and double imagery is accompanied by the soundtrack which reflects the mental splitting of York’s character with a melodic Oscar nominated score from John Williams intercut with the contrasting jarring percussive sounds of Stomu Yamashta. 

The film is in many ways a jigsaw puzzle like the one Cathryn and Susannah attempt to complete. Its many elements don’t always neatly fit together, but once the puzzle is complete (or as complete as director Altman will allow); its detailed construction reveals itself and rewards patient examination

****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was first published on the FrighFest website.