Director Robert Altman’s Images (1925-2006 leukemia) is an, at times, puzzling movie about the creation of writing and the madness that lies in between. It is also one woman’s journey through insanity brought to life by a great performance by Susannah York (1939-2011 multiple myeloma) in the lead. Or is the act of creating itself just madness between moments of sanity? Images entertains and puzzles!
The Magic of Unicorns is the starting point of Images and is a children’s book which was apparently written by York. It is her movie as a result as she is captured in most of Altman’s images which are about the images created from within her mind as she tells the tale of her book. And her mind is disturbed. York’s character of Catherine hears her own voice talking to her on a “crossed line” on the telephone at the beginning of the movie… But we have already listened to her inner voice as she dictates her book and commits it to paper. It is the apparent escape or liberation of that fictional inner voice beyond it being committed to paper which is the beginning of the true horror of Images.
Once more, Catherine is on the phone, this time to her husband, when the inner voice takes over and says that her husband is in bed with another woman.
“Why are you telling me this?,” she asks, only for the voice to echo back the same line. She even seems to answer a phone call from herself. Catherine has been told the address where her husband is having the affair. Things are looking slightly crazy… and Catherine can’t sleep and her husband finds all the phones off the hook when he returns home.
“Isn’t that what people do when they don’t want to be disturbed,” says the disturbed Catherine who snaps at her husband about his apparent lover. But she still trusts him and they kiss, but when they do, Catherine instead sees a strange man kissing her and recoils and screams.
“In the beginning,” Catherine’s voice recounts about her story of the unicorns as a charm on the rear-view mirror in the car rings as it drives through the countryside toward her beloved rural retreat. She later wakes with a start… She lives in a world of her own and not necessarily one in the world of unicorns and it is the voice of the writer composing in their dreams – rather than an ordinary dreamer. Catherine’s inner voice is taking over her dreams as well as escaping from her head… It is even beginning to manifest itself in another Catherine who she sees from the hills surrounding her precious country home where she and her husband are headed. This Catherine is ahead of her, arriving in a car at the country home in a valley… and this Catherine can also see herself watching from the hills as she takes her luggage inside. Is it the one and the same woman?
They are almost like poles apart and the illness maybe bipolar… It may be that they are the basic split personality of schizophrenia. It may only be a part of the creative process in that this is Catherine’s story or Susannah York’s as she is the original creator of the story running through Catherine’s head. Perhaps one is Susannah and one is Catherine?
So, who wrote Images? Was it Susannah York? Or was it the child in Susannah York? Susannah York is definitely the inspiration for Images as is the narcissist within the writer, or that creator who walks a tightrope with their inner voice to give birth to the written word. Although York is credited for her book, it was Altman who was the writer of the screenplay.
There are reports the screenplay was written several years before the movie was made and that there were times when it almost came to fruition using actresses such as Sandy Dennis (1937-92 ovarian cancer), who was so good in Altman’s first horror type movie That Cold Day in the Park (1969). Julie Christie (1940-) almost made Images but ended up in Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).
It is reported that during the production of Images, Altman heard that York was writing a book and that he then used it in the final script. Also, the script itself wasn’t a script per se but a collection of ideas which were workshopped by the actors during rehearsal.
Altman’s potpourri of ideas for Images received a Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen from the Writer’s Guild of America in 1973. However, it was dismissed as “a mishmash” by one New York critic and ignored by others and as a result didn’t get a proper American release. York won Best Actress at Cannes in 1972 but nothing else materialised award wise for her in this role in which she is onscreen most of the time as either herself, or her imagined or escaped self, or even her doppelganger.
In turn, the character of Catherine hears voices, has violent outbursts and seems to be visited by ghosts. Or are they flesh and blood sent to drive her insane?…
Catherine seems to be talking to herself: “I do it quite often,” she says about this habit.
There is a jigsaw puzzle being put together by Catherine and her husband and all the pieces seem to be almost black… Catherine’s book haunts her like the ghost of her dead lover and while it may be almost like poetry running through her head, there is no peace, except in the rhyming pieces of a puzzle that makes the complete set of images within Images.
When there is silence, it is strewn with sounds of the type which drove actor Laird Cregar (1913-44 heart attack) mad in Hangover Square (1945): They are discordant and almost disturbing sounds which are hard to describe.
“I don’t know,” says Catherine to a young girl named Susannah, who visits with her lecherous father and asks what the jigsaw puzzle is going to create.
Even the names within the movie echo and reflect Susannah York the actress and her character Catherine. Five of the characters names are the real first names of other actors in the film. Susannah York plays Catherine while Cathryn Harrison (1959-2018) plays the child Susannah. Rene Auberjoinos (1940-2019 lung cancer) plays husband Hugh, while lecherous neighbour Hugh Millais (1929-2009) plays Marcel and Marcel Bozzuffi (1928-88 cancer) plays dead lover Rene. This is all a part of Catherine’s confusion and fragmentation as she can’t tell her real self or even the real selves of others in her social circle.
Catherine is so detached from reality that her book is running through her head even when she is socialising. Or is this common for all great writers?
“Talk about 1001 Nights of Sodom. I’ve got my own dirty book,” says the child’s father which piques Catherine’s attention as the child is listening half-asleep. Catherine’s worry of what is appropriate listening or literature for the child seems to be the key to the writer who writes clean and pure of heart literature as opposed to the pornography of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). There are some who may write both! But that inner voice of Catherine’s is otherwise beginning to behave immorally and will move beyond acceptable boundaries as her behaviour begins to deteriorate into one influenced by mental illness.
And later Catherine says: “I’m sick. I’m sick…” to the lech who tries to seduce her, which then turns into the laughing image of her husband.
Trying to make sense of Images and the images it presents needs a diagnosis and then perhaps understanding will follow. Is mental illness caused by guilt? Is it caused by past actions or present longings? Are they all one and the same?
Images is definitely an art film and, in a way, it is a horror art film. It has been compared to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s (1928-2018 natural causes) Don’t Look Now (1973), as well as the puzzling Last Year at Marienbad (1961) by Alain Resnais (1922-2014).
Director Altman occasionally used intimate casts but would soon prove to be the master of the all-star ensemble beginning with Countdown (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970) through to Gosford Park (2001). He had the term Altman-esque attached to his name like the term Hitchcockian was given to Alfred Hitchcock. He made a wide range of pictures from Robin Williams (1951-2014 suicide by hanging) in Popeye (1980) to Paul Newman in the post-apocalyptic Quintet (1979). That one stars Bibi Andersson (1939-2019) who starred in Ingmar Bergman’s (1918-2007) Persona (1966).
Persona was said to be Altman’s inspiration for Images as it tells of a nurse who moves in with a patient and has trouble distinguishing herself from the patient. That film explored insanity and duality far more deeply than the violent Repulsion to which Images is a closer relation. We don’t see the images conjured in Catherine’s mind, instead they are projected upon the other characters or they are a hallucination. Does a mad person have what could be classified as ‘thoughts’ as opposed to ‘disordered thinking’?
There are no real delusions of reference that the schizophrenic may suffer from, nor delusions of grandeur… Even Dissociative Identity Disorder, where there are two distinct personalities doesn’t fit the bill… To place a direct term for what poor Catherine appears to be suffering from is the syndrome of subjective doubles which is a delusion where a double may be projected onto a person from a stranger to a family member. It is something which wasn’t actually named until the late 1970s long after this film was made.
Add the mirrors which appear in Images and there is a further effect of other people being projected onto the friends of Catherine… There are five characters like the points of a pentacle… But we won’t go there!
Sex and fidelity seem to be at the heart of Altman’s film and fidelity to one’s own vision as an artist. Like Catherine, who conjures her story, Altman is uncompromising of his vision of madness in this movie. It was co-produced by his own production company Lion’s Gate Films which has nothing to do with current distributor Lionsgate. Altman’s company together with Hemdale Productions gave the director the freedom to deliver final cut which Altman enjoyed throughout his career.
There are images of cameras, lenses and spectacles and they all relate to the fact we are viewing something but we don’t know quite what it is. It’s serious stuff despite the weak jokes told by Catherine’s husband which litter the movie and further contrast the dark nature of the material which also features guns and murder.
What do you expect when someone says to Catherine: “You’re a schizo!,” since this word is sadly synonymous with violence and murder, when suicide is more often the case among those who suffer this malady.
Genius is next to madness they say, to play with the phrase Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Something turned on its head by the shower scene from Psycho (1960). But the fine line between genius and madness seems to have been crossed by Catherine whose book of unicorns becomes mixed with the carnal desires of the men who populate the movie. She could be termed frigid or is repulsed by anyone’s touch but her own.
Back to that soundtrack of noises and music and it mixes the work of composer John Williams (1932-) with sounds compiled by Stomu Yamashta (1947-). His work is described as sound sculptures and he would later work on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Sound and image in this movie don’t necessarily go together and the images which tell the narrative of the movie are deceiving as the editing is also as jarring as some of the soundtrack. The sound of Catherine’s inner voice is out of whack with images of Catherine’s real life.
This collaboration of sorts between Altman and York is shown further in that the husband of Catherine is a photographer and creator of images… Altman’s writing doesn’t appear to be autobiographical as his first two short marriages appear to be with stable women. Images appears to be more of a case of Altman indulging in mind-bending drugs which were on offer during the early 1970s. In fact, Altman was an outspoken marijuana user and served as a member of the advisory board of NORML (National Organisation for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws). I wouldn’t recommend the character of Catherine to indulge in any drugs at all!
But Altman’s genius was never about himself but different aspects of people. His biographer Mitchell Zuckoff (1962-) may have summed up the ‘narrative’ of Images when he said of Altman: “He disliked the word ‘story’, believing that plot should be second to an exploration of pure (or even better, impure) human behaviour… He loved the chaotic nature of real life with conflicting perspectives, surprising twists, unexplained actions and ambiguous endings”. Perhaps Images is Altman’s subconscious given full rein and as a result may be his purest film of all!
Interestingly, it is also not an obvious satire like many of his movies which sent up many genres. His work has been described as anti-genre as a result. In the end though, we wonder if it is all just a ‘you’ll go blind’ type joke as we have a climax in a shower, something which relates to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) …
The full irony is first hinted at as Catherine returns to the address that her voice on the phone at the beginning of the film tells herself is where her husband is sharing a bed with a woman. It is her very own address! She has returned home after she has killed what she thinks is her doppelganger by running her down in a car which leads to the body going off the side of a cliff and down a waterfall to the base of a mountain. It is like the wicked self has gone down the drain like Marion Crane washing away her sins in Hitchcock’s movie in that movie’s shower scene.
While Catherine takes her shower in Images, her voice tells of unicorns… those creatures with the mythical phallus-like horn on their head… but she is visited by her own self who steps into the shower after saying: “You see Catherine, it was easy” and they come together as one as the mirror behind the shower head reflects the writhing or writing hand of the creator as onanist or narcissist during a kind of orgasmic climax. It has been revealed that it is Catherine’s husband is at the bottom of the falls! Her guilt about her imagined or real behaviour has driven her mad…
“Unicorn, goodbye and thank you for being mine… and he picked up his fat volume from the table and in big, spidery writing wrote In Search of Unicorns… The End.”
This line is spoken by the child Susannah who places the last piece of the puzzle into place which is of a unicorn… Susannah York may have written the book, which we are told is written by a man with spidery writing and yet it is read by a child! It is like the water down the plughole or the body at the bottom of the rushing falls – the art of writing sometimes comes from the chaos of the mind being washed clean and the detritus carried away. Catherine’s madness may have resulted from her being caught in the act of creation alone! And nothing more.
It’s Susannah York’s movie and I interviewed her by phone in 2001 for my newspaper when she appeared on stage doing The Loves of Shakespeare’s Women. She said she hadn’t seen Images in years and I offered her a VHS tape of it. I had dropped it off at the theatre before I saw her on stage and after the show greeted her with: “You were very good!” to a speechless crowd in the foyer. I said: “I liked your Merry Wives of Windsor” which was about the broke character Falstaff on the make in the hope of jokingly provoking an offer of money for the tape, which she did. I said I don’t want money but I’ll have a glass of red wine… And you know what she did? She left the sycophants in the lobby and went all the way backstage to her dressing room and fetched me a glass of red wine. Beautiful girl!