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'Oh, we're in for one of those movies", I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgangers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren't there at all, or are taking the place of real people. It's frustrating until Susannah York's sensitive performance starts to sink in. These Twilight Zone-inflected weird tales usually end up in a trite twist of fate, or fold in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images has real intelligence beyond its cleverness.
York makes the very disturbed Cathryn into someone we can care about. She wanders about her house as a stranger in her own environment and not as a Zombie, like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. Convinced that her phantom lovers are not real, she goes on a campaign to destroy them, a particularly bad idea. If one is so turned around that one cannot tell what's what and who's who, there's no telling what one might shoot. The film has a sickly suspenseful section when we become convinced that Cathryn really has murdered someone, and only thinks that the corpse on her floor is a mirage. It may not be a horror film, but at this point Images touches heavily upon the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart.
Cathryn's problem is psychological and about sex. Her husband patronizes her, and his best friend molests her at every opportunity - unless he's a phantom, in which case she fantasizes that he's molesting her. She's sure her old boyfriend Rene is a ghost. He has a nasty habit of suddenly turning into her husband or speaking with her husband's voice. She can't even tell who she's talking to half the time, and neither can we as we strain to figure out the film's sly web of logic.
Cathryn is in the center of the confusion, not simply observing it as an outsider who can escape as soon as the puzzle is solved. She's still sexually involved with all three men, at least inside her own head. She has a dreaded fear of a doppelganger copy of herself; if we take the film literally, Cathryn may never reach the country estate, but stays in the heather while the copy takes over for her.
Symbols come at us from all sides: birds that cannot be caught, puzzles that won't go together, and strange animal symbols - sheep, dogs, an elk's head. Cathryn periodically narrates the fantasy book text that appears as voiceover. Or is the voice sometimes that of young Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), who openly offers that she might be a younger Cathryn?
Speaking of frustratingly clever games, screenwriter Altman has chosen to give his actors' names to his characters, but he's scrambled them up. It's one of the few gimmicks that seems forced; the saving grace of Images are its honest performances and Vilmos Zsigmond's cautious cinematography. The lush Irish countryside and the well-appointed houses are immediately accepted as strange but real. Altman the director infuses his scenes with oddness without resorting to telltale genre visuals or giveaway camera angles. In general, we're shown everything all the time and there are no story essentials withheld from our view. That doesn't mean that we can trust anything Cathryn hears or sees, however.
The acting is all good, but Susannah York is remarkable. She never seems anything less than natural. She has a distinctive, non-starlet scream that will set your teeth on edge. She does an excellent scene, after a terrible fright, where she's begging her husband to make love to her. I've never seen a moment like that work anywhere else.
John Williams' interesting score is highlighted with strange Japanese sounds by Stomu Yamashta. Perhaps the only cliché is when the soundtrack bursts with exotic noises that evoke the Toho ghost story omnibus Kwaidan. But the weird string plucks and percussion hits don't dominate the track, or ever happen when we expect them. It's a great progressive score.
Even when the mystery of Images appears to be solved, we're at a loss to put Cathryn's full psychosis together. She remains an enigma, as does Altman's film. Images is the darling of Altman's boosters and the picture many naysayers point to when giving evidence for his cinematic impeachment. It's not a picture for a lazy viewer, that's for sure.
MGM's DVD of Images is a stunning enhanced transfer of perfect elements. The encoding preserves the soft pastels and many shots with planes of de-focused shapes and vignetting, with a minimum of extra 'digital grain'. The mono track is dynamic and rich-sounding.
MGM in-house producer Greg Carson provides a good illustrated interview with Altman and (briefly) his cameraman Zsigmond. Altman says right up front that his story is psychological and not about ghosts, but gives away little about other details of the film. Instead, he delves into his philosophy of filmmaking, eventually coming to some conclusions that will play like wisdom from heaven for Altman fans. He was good on the commentary for The Long Goodbye but is so inspired by Images that we have to think that abstract drama is his favorite subject. He mentions Quintet as another rejected offspring he holds close to his heart; I hope he's not harboring any plans to champion O.C. and Stiggs as the 'true' Altman movie.
The disc also has a 'selected scenes commentary' that I was not willing to replay the entire movie to audit, sorry. I'm sure it's good. Perhaps it's better for a commentator to talk when he has something to say, instead of filling up a track with blather.
The original trailer is elaborate, no, very elaborate, actually, too elaborate for its own good. It actually carries a credit for the French trailermaker who put it together.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Images rates:
Movie: Very Good, excellent for Ethereal Cereal cinema types
Supplements: Docu-Interview Imagining Images, partial commentary with Altman, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 16, 2003