Images (1972) dir. Robert Altman

7/24 @HFA


Susannah: “When I’m alone, I think.”
Cathryn: “I do that. That’s when I get really afraid.”

Kill me once, shame on you. Kill me twice, I demand an explanation. You’ll have to fashion one for yourself while watching Images, Robert Altman‘s harrowing psychological horror story, a film that strongly prefigures, thematically and tonally, the director’s better-known bad-trip from the other side of the Seventies, 3 Women. Cathryn, the lead character in Images, is killed not once, not twice, but three times, by three different hands, each of them her own. Unless, of course, she’s fine, in which case three men are dead.

Unsynthesized further fragments out of sequence:

Susannah York, as Cathryn, alone in a large, somewhat austere, well-appointed house, eating an apple, writing and reciting a fairy tale about a girl alone in a wood, called “In Search of Unicorns.” She seeks “a single, slender horn.” The girl does, or Cathryn does, or, well, as her husband Hugh asks: “What is the difference between a rabbit?” “Nothing,” he provides after a beat, “One is both and the same.”

Cathryn’s drawn face, leaning against and reflected from a window drummed by streaking rain, then flashing across a flickering fireplace. “It’s no good, I can’t see anything. I’m in too deep.”

Inscrutably scrotal wind-chimes, some metal, some glass, dangle from mirrors, rear-view and otherwise, softly shattering the air like a curtain of beads hung between doorways to telegraph in-coming phantoms. And in comes the first phantom: Rene, a Frenchman, three years dead, with whom Cathryn once had an affair. He begins to appear every time Hugh leaves the room. Sometimes Hugh wears his face. Sometimes Cathryn screams.

“Do you know where your husband is tonight?” asks an unidentified woman who has inexplicably hijacked Cathryn’s phone call with a friend. The camera wanders away from Cathryn, lingers over other cameras (Hugh is a photographer), over guns (Hugh is a hunter). In time (where else?), the cameras and guns get to know each other by shooting each other, the violence of representation vs. the representation of violence.

I’ll be my mirror: A trip to the country, into the plush Irish green, to escape all the stress and confusion in favor of bucolic peace. From a precipice on the approach to their vacation home, Cathryn gazes down to see herself her double, or herself in a different time, drive up to the house in the valley below. As Second Cathryn emerges from the car and looks up, she notices herself noticing herself, but decides she’ll keep it to herself.

Hugh, Rene, Marcel: three men, three women in one. If Cathryn is to be understood as a schizophrenic (as she typically is in critical considerations of Images), it is because her psyche has been splintered under the pain of blows delivered by or through these three men. Cathryn can be thought of in conjunction with her philandering husband, Hugh, while her double, Second Cathryn, exists in relation to Rene, her former lover (and current specter), leaving Susannah, a recapitulation of Cathryn as a child (and played by Cathryn Harrison, a child), to suffer the sexual predations of her father, Marcel — this last being her primary, constitutive, cyclically recurring trauma, susceptible to compounding shocks but un-amenable to amelioration. Unless by means of annihilation?

Seen one cage, seen ’em all: When she tries to escape her escape by running into the outer wild, the storybook idyll Cathryn initially encounters — “I’ll tell myself stories, play in the woods, make up a friend” — swiftly shrivels into yet another fresh hell, as the growing clamor of experimental percussionist Stomu Yamashta‘s soundtrack (on which he collaborated with John Williams) summons a feral dog who chases her back home.

Susannah and Cathryn work together on a jigsaw puzzle depicting the house in which they work on it. “Too many pieces missing,” says Susannah. Cathryn sings “The Wagoner’s Lad.” Controlled, confined, or just criminally insane, Susannah York’s Cathryn is a creation worthy of Anna Kavan, whose chillingly detached mid-century chronicles of female madness capture its isolation, estrangement, and desperately wishful thinking in a web of death-dealing dreams. Images does something similar, and is something to see. So go see it tonight at the HFA.

dir. Robert Altman
101 min

Part of the ongoing series: The Complete Robert Altman

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