Whatever else you might say about Robert Altman, he did not stand still. The variety of genres he explored and approaches that he took testify to an imaginative, often iconoclastic talent. One of the consequences of such a restless intelligence, however, is uneven achievement. Images, an early ’70s drama about a young woman (Susannah York) going mad was not particularly well received when it was released. Today’s viewers might be more receptive to its lush surfaces and unhinged content, but Altman’s undeniable ability was often undone by his pretensions. On the evidence, he was not as smart as he thought he was, and when the material required insight or an understanding beyond sophomoric irony, he was out of his depth.
This is not a film about a nervous breakdown, but full-on insanity. With the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, designer Leon Ericksen and the Irish locations, York’s descent into madness is ravishing, but it is not clear whether Images is meant as a serious study of mental disturbance or as a simple horror film. It is woefully inadequate as the former, nothing more than a wallow in psychosis without even a gesture of explanation or veracity. As horror, on the other hand, Images is too long, slow and predictable. Every shock is weighted down by mannered obtuseness that seems to mistake calculated obscurity for profundity.
Neither psychology nor horror is helped by an undercurrent of cuteness. All of the characters bear the actors’ names, but redistributed, so that York, for example, is named “Cathryn,” while the daughter of one of her ex-lovers (Cathryn Harrison) is named “Susannah,” and so on. Given Cathryn’s difficulty keeping people’s identities straight, that diddle may be meant to make the audience identify with her confusion, but it is more like an annoying distraction. So too the narrated excerpts from Cathryn’s children’s book (written by York) which are as tony as they are impenetrable. What the book’s elves, fairies and unicorns have to do with the prismatic vortex is anyone’s guess.
More fundamentally, Cathryn is a mess from the start, and all we get between that recognition and the twist ending is two hours of repetitive confusion as she tries to deal with her hallucinations. Those are staged with considerable flair, but become tiresome. You want to say “We get the point, Bob. When are you going to do something with this snazzy technique?”
The “something” that Altman eventually delivers, that twist ending, is so cheap it cannot be revealed without spoiling the dumb-dumb “surprise.” If the film were serious about exploring madness, worries about giving away the ending would be irrelevant, even unnecessary. Worse, the manipulations leading up to the twist are clumsily obvious. All the decorative excess and ominous pretense labor mightily to bring forth a squeak.
Images can generously be characterized as an experiment. The results are certainly gorgeous, but also egregiously pointless.