Movie: Images (1972)

Cathryn Harrison must have had a curious upbringing.  In her teenage years, she starred in two deeply weird movies: Louis Malle’s Black Moon and Robert Altman’s Images.  She was also in the Donovan-starring The Pied Piper, which had to the most traumatic of those films to make.  At least, it is the most traumatic to watch and, believe me, those other two are truly, deeply weird.

In 1972’s Images, she plays what seems to be the young doppelganger of Susannah York.  Whatever she may appear to be, she is definitely the daughter of Marcel Bozzuffi, one of two men with whom York has had an affair in the past.  The other man is Hugh Millais.

Both men, and her husband (Rene Auberjonois), seem to be constantly underfoot at her country home deep in rural Ireland.  This is especially remarkable, in that Millais is dead and so is only in York’s imagination.  A bigger threat is Bozzuffi, who is constantly pawing her every time her husband has his back turned.  At least the man brought Harrison with him, so that York at least has a kindred spirit around.

York’s character has never had children, and there seems to be ample, contradictory evidence as to whether or not she wanted them.  And yet, here is Harrison, apparently as the daughter she never had.  Together, they go for walks and work on a jigsaw puzzle that nobody can seem to solve, but which is obviously a picture of the house they’re in.

When that puzzle is finished, it turns out not just to be a picture of that house, but it also includes a tiger and a unicorn.  If not sure about the tiger but the unicorn, at least, is in a story York’s character has been writing and thinking about throughout the film.  In a weird meta moment, it is revealed at the end this text is from a book the real-life actress wrote.

The meta nature of the film extents to the names of the main characters.  Cathryn Harrison’s is named Susannah, while Susanna York plays Cathryn.  And get a load of the men who are her various lovers: Rene Auberjonois plays Hugh, Marcel Bozzuffi is Rene and Hugh Millais stars as Marcel.  I’m not sure if there’s any depth beyond that, but it intrigues me.

Another seemingly meta aspect is how various objects tend to reflect York’s fragmenting identity, as there are many deliberate close-ups on objects that distort light: such as crystal wind chimes or her husband’s reading glasses.  Mirrors are an overused metaphor in cinema for the splitting of a personality, but almost every mirror in this film curiously is of the antique type that has a product advertisement partly obscuring the surface.  So, when looking into the mirror, it’s hard to get a decent reflection.  Then there’s a still camera which seems to be pointed to whichever direction York is when she’s near it, as if the actress cannot get away from the camera.  Not sure if that’s a commentary on the sensation of being a film star, but it feels like one.

Speaking of split personalities, we will see various iterations of York observing other incarnations from a distance.  She’ll watch from a hilltop as, in the distance, another version of herself is driving the car up to her house.  And we’re increasingly uncertain as to whether what she is experiencing is real or imagined.  In many scenes, Bozzuffi will be tormenting her, except nobody but York can see him, as he died years before.

Altman has said he was heavily influenced by Bergman’s Persona when making this film.  I can understand that, though I enjoyed this far more than the Swedish master’s movie.  Though both are rather airless affairs, there was nonetheless a moment here where I laughed long and hard, as York flees in terror from a small, happy dog.  Even the music accompanying this bit, worthy of Psycho, compounded how funny this was to me, whether or not that was Altman’s intention.  Speaking of humor, there are the lame jokes her husband is always telling, until his last one seems to foretell the coming breakdown of reality: “How can you tell the difference between a rabbit?  None.  They’re both the same.”

The jigsaw puzzle in an interesting metaphor for the plot, which is full of ambiguities, complications and seeming contradictions.  Similarly, the puzzle is remarked as seemingly not having all the necessary pieces and may even be missing some.  At the end of the film, I wasn’t sure if all of the pieces of it fit together in the end, but it was an interesting puzzle, regardless.  I believe I could have just as easily been frustrated by this work as I just happened to instead be enthralled.  A few decades before studio A24 was established, Altman had already made the best film of the type they specialize in.

Dir: Robert Altman

Starring Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Cathryn Harrison

Watched on Arrow Films blu-ray