Images

“Images”

Written and Directed by Robert Altman 

(Featured Novel by Susannah York)

1972

1 hour, 41 minutes

I watched it on Shudder.

“Images” shouldn’t work. It should be too arty, too twisty, too unresolved. But instead, it’s an accomplished tightrope walk, genuinely entertaining, funny and scary. Cathryn (Susannah York) is an English children’s book author married to a fairly bland businessman named Hugh (Rene Auberjonois). She’s sitting around, messy papers and mugs of tea around her, writing away, when she gets a few phone calls that yank her out of that good work and into a paranoid nightmare. A woman on the phone claims Hugh is having an affair. Hugh denies it and we mostly believe him like Cathryn does. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that even knows where his backup toothpaste is, let alone someone with the drive or means to pull off an affair. But still, since they’re now both worried about her mental state, they try that old-school “remedy” of a vacation out in isolation. I was screaming, “Get her a doctor!” But hey, at least their vacation spot is pretty damn dreamy – a cottage in the Irish countryside. 

So they get there, and soon she’s seeing some spooky stuff, including her dead French lover Rene (boy, that was fun to write) played with immense power by Marcel Bozzuffi of “The French Connection” fame. She’s also having fantasies of shooting people. So maybe she’s being haunted or maybe she needs some medical help.

Cathryn is so over the men in her life and yet so drawn to them. It’s like she knows exactly how limited and limiting they are and this knowledge causes her to alternate between “let’s fuck while my husband’s in the other room” and “get out of my face.” The men even change into each other. Her husband will leave the room. She’ll walk into that room to join him and find her dead lover instead. Some of the only times Cathryn seems comfortable or at peace are when she’s alone. Is that because she’s lulled into the world of the ghosts or because no one is challenging her version of reality?

It doesn’t seem like her love life is very fulfilling or honest. Hugh is in his own world and still expects her to make that spaghetti dinner but he isn’t cruel or completely blind to his wife’s troubles. He’s just half-assing it, a much more realistic crime. Soon Hugh’s friend Marcel (played by Hugh Millais) and his daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) who live nearby keep coming over. Susannah looks so exactly like a younger version of Cathryn. Altman even upped that ante by naming the female characters each after the other actress, so Susannah plays Cathryn and Cathryn plays Susannah. It’s so very 70’s and I ain’t mad at it.

Cathryn may tentatively bond with Susannah. But she isn’t happy to see Marcel, however she doesn’t seem to think that’s something she can complain about, a position that reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in “Mother.” 

Quick digression: I like to think of Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother” as a Rorschach test of a flick: what you see in it tells you more about yourself than the filmmakers’ actual intentions. I saw that movie and felt slapped with sympathy for Jennifer Lawrence’s character. She’s constantly expected to put aside her own needs and wishes for that of her family, in this case just her jerkoff poet husband. It’s a window into the epidemic of unpaid, unsung wives throughout history. As a stay-at-home mom responsible for the advocating and driving and tracking and patience involved in raising a daughter with special needs, it can sometimes feel like that movie: a constant parade of need. But then I talked to other people and they got none of that. They thought “Mother” was a Biblical allegory or a story about powerful men or just crap. The crap category seems to be the largest contingent, much as I disagree. 

But back to this movie about a conflicted woman. The art direction by Leon Ericksen is a pure delight. Those two houses could not be more different in aesthetic and yet they are both so confining and strange. The city place should be sexy and modern but instead feels cold, overly stylized. And the country place should be cozy and romantic but instead feels outdated, oppressive. I just keep going back to that word with regard to this movie: oppressive. Almost everywhere she turns, she is pressed upon by a man, for sex, for spaghetti, for listening to his bird hunting exploits. And instead she just needs a good therapist and a damn minute to herself.

As the title teases, and well, like all movies, this movie is full of images: haunting, confusing, gorgeous images. In one, her husband’s ridiculous, bulky camera points at her as she stands before it, looking like she’s about to be smooshed by it.

In another, she looks across a hilly pass and sees herself. Later in the film, there’s a perhaps actual corpse/perhaps fantasy corpse lying on the floor for a good many scenes. It’s a great makeup job, paling and congealing as time goes by. 

I picked the movie off Shudder purely based on the description and then it turned out to be this hidden Robert Altman gem. He brings his trademark love and compassion and truths about women to Cathryn and he takes us on a whirling zig-zag that never actually goes off the rails. Afterwards, in reading about the production process, I found out that while this seemed so precise and planned, it was much looser. Each night, Altman and his actors went over the next day’s scenes and then largely improvised them. I was shocked. I had imagined it must have been rewritten and storyboarded over and over.

I always wonder how true these stories are, though, these dramatic tales of improv gone so very right. It feels akin to Steven Spielberg claiming he just walked onto the Universal Studios lot and picked an empty office and just pretended it was his until it actually became his. Hollywood myth employed to build up the mystery and legend of the (usually male) director. Directing is too often seen as this mythic, magical, mysterious act, and while there’s definitely magic and luck involved, most of it is way more down to earth and to-do listy than that. But we just so love our tall tales of extreme risk. It’s more fun than someone rewrote a script many times and then the director worked out a shot list and went on location scouts and so on. 

But hey, I’m probably being unfair. It was the very early 70’s. Maybe Altman and York and the others really did sit around a dinner table with bottles of wine and talked it out as they went. And if that really is true, it’s even more of a miracle of collaboration. I imagine a lot of props are owed to the editor, Graeme Clifford, who made all of these artistic images and grand concepts and whirling realities flow in a straight line, not just comprehensible but genuinely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised, then, to discover that he also edited the whirly nightmare masterpiece “Don’t Look Now,” along with directing “Frances” about the mentally ill movie star Frances Farmer. 

The movie also features one of the more realistic portrayals of the writing process I’ve seen, especially that stage where you’re really in the groove of it, in the mode, that when you’re there, the story just flows out of you and you’re addicted to writing it. You look forward to sitting down, no motivating M&Ms required. I’m sure it was helped by the fact that Susannah York actually wrote and later published the book she reads in the voiceover throughout the film, an often wise but mostly dreamy fantasy book about unicorns. It was nice to watch one of my writer tribe at work.

York also won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and she absolutely deserved it. She looks like she’s having a blast, like a (potential) breakdown would be the most fun ever and why don’t women have them more often? Most people don’t remember this movie. I had never even heard of it. But at least they got props for it at the time. I will now have to go through and see all of York’s films. She seems the exact opposite of the hysterical woman: a focus, driven, just plain down-for-whatever artist. 

I love this bit from Michael Billington’s obituary for her in The Guardian, “Behind the good looks, one sensed a certain impish wildness.” (That whole obituary is worth a look. May we all have someone write about us with such searching compassion when we go.) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/jan/16/susannah-york-obituary

This is one of the only films I can recall that managed to pull off the is-she-crazy-or-is-she-haunted trope. It feels like an actual nightmare, one that tempts and taunts you into thinking lovely things like walks by a waterfall or sex with an intense French guy are happening, only to be quite harshly interrupted. The idea of the hysterical woman has been used for hundreds of years to explain away messier things like situational depression from being, you know, an oppressed woman, abuse, being just awake and angry, and of course, actual mental illness that they didn’t yet know how to treat. Maybe I’ll take a look at a host of horror flicks that address this idea of a hysterical woman and see what treats I find. What do you think? What are your favorite horrors that deal with this topic?

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