This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.
We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Images (1972) – Prix d’interprétation féminine – Susannah York
Images is an abnormal Altman film in a couple of ways. First of all, unlike Robert Altman’s more star-studded films, such as The Player and Gosford Park, Images only has five named characters. It’s also, to put it simply, a weird little picture.
It’s about an unhinged woman named Cathryn trying to literally kill the painful memories from her past as they haunt her in the flesh. Susannah York stars as Cathryn. She won Best Actress at Cannes—and, unfortunately, that’s the only major recognition she received for her tour de force performance.
Her character Cathryn is a children’s author; she fabricates fantastical realities for a living (an important detail). And her mind is in turmoil. She suffers from a mental illness adjacent to schizophrenia that these sadistic phantoms use as a bridge to torment her as they please. Throughout Images, the concepts of reality and fantasy blur continually, creating a nightmarish environment for our heroine. And we, like Cathryn, usually have no idea what’s actually going on.
In the beginning, Cathryn receives a series of upsetting phone calls from a female voice telling her that Hugh, her husband (Rene Auberjonois), is having an affair. So when Hugh returns home moments later, he finds his wife in a bit of a state. He attempts to comfort her, but in her mind he’s replaced with the image of another, more lascivious, man. She understandably flees in terror and screams in horror until Hugh is Hugh again.
Then he, a boneheaded man, blames her behavior on some sort of feminine stress, and they retreat to their cottage in pastoral Ireland. The idea is that the isolation and atmosphere will ease her tensions so she can focus on her writing and not her trauma. Big mistake.
Things worsen in the dreary countryside. For starters, Cathryn’s long-gone former lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) returns, although he died in a plane crash a few years prior… This apparition of Rene repeatedly pops up around the house—sometimes usurping Hugh’s body a la that first episode—to taunt Cathryn and drive her mad.
The third man responsible for Cathryn’s rural psychosis—as if things couldn’t get any more unpleasant—is their neighbor Marcel (Hugh Millais). Marcel is quite handsy. He has a tendency to grope Cathryn and whisper darkly sexual provocations in her ear. All unwelcome, of course.
Marcel does, however, have a daughter named Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), whom Cathryn develops a maternal fondness for. These moments between Susannah and Cathryn thankfully offer York (and the audience) a respite from the grave nature of the narrative.
Have you noticed how the characters’ names are just the actors’ names but rotated? This trick not only fuels the whole who’s who dilemma of the story, but also sheds light on the film’s construction.
Looking back on the filming experience, York has described the original screenplay as being
fairly bare. That’s because Altman wasn’t much of a pen-to-paper writer. He often employed a free-flowing, collective-driven style of mapping out his films, and Images was no exception.
Just as he’d go on to encourage his thespians to write songs for Nashville, Altman inspired the cast of Images to come up with backstories and scripted material for their characters. He respected his actors as artists so much that he didn’t want to limit their ingenuity. He also knew that if he assembled the right players, they would work with each other to create characters more full-blooded than he could with a typewriter.
A lot of the film’s voiceover narration, for instance, comes from a children’s book that Susannah York wrote in real life prior to shooting, entitled In Search of Unicorns. So, by creating her own Cathryn, York not only built a multifaceted character basically from scratch but also to made the film itself richer and deeper, too. Thus, much of what makes Images so creepy and wonderfully enigmatic is absolutely due to its star.
Her layered descent as she rids herself of her demons, amplified by Vilmos Zsigmond’s unnerving cinematography and John Williams’ eerie score, is a true feast for the senses. Susannah York’s marvelous performance is further proof that horror—a genre ever-morphing to reflect the present—is rife with complex roles that get at the heart of the human condition without being bound to reality.