Robert Altman's Images Blu-ray Review: Nothing Like Altman

A surrealistic horror film that feels more like Ingmar Bergman than Robert Altman.
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Made in the middle of his incredible 1970s run of films that includes M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye ,and Nashville, Robert Altman’s Images is unlike any of those films and in fact is different from pretty much anything in his long, storied career.  There is none of the overlapping dialogue that Altman pioneered and his camera, which he typically inserts into a scene letting it rummage around for a story, is more beautiful, constructed, and poetic.  

Made in 1972, Images premiered at the Cannes film festival where it won Susannah York the award for Best Actress.  It was picked up by Columbia and entered into the New York Film Festival where it was either ignored by critics or dismissed.  It went around to a few other major cities then pretty much disappeared.   It has been mostly ignored ever since.  With this new Arrow Academy release, that will hopefully be remedied as it is a really interesting film worthy of being viewed and ruminated upon by Altman fanatics and film lovers of all stripes.

York stars as Cathryn, a rich, socialite, children’s book author who slowly loses her mind while on holiday at her remote Irish cottage.  It begins in her London home one evening where she receives a phone call from a friend looking for a night cap.  The call is periodically interrupted by another line where an unknown woman informs Cathryn that her husband Hugh (Rena Auberjonis) is currently out having an affair with another woman. When Hugh comes home, he tries to comfort his distraught wife, but she panics as he seemingly walks into one door as himself and out as a completely different man.  The two decide to go to Cathyn’s childhood home in Ireland to give her some rest.  But while there, Cathryn begins envisioning her former lover whose been dead for several years.  She also imagines (or maybe not, it's hard to tell in this dreamlike film) that her neighbor (and also ex-lover) Marcel (Hugh Millais) begins pushing her adamantly, sometimes violently, into sexual situations.  To confuse things even more, the real Marcel does come by to visit and brings his adolescent daughter with him.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond gives the film a surreal, dreamlike quality, and John Williams created one of his most evocative scores.  Altman fills the screen with symbolism including copious use of mirrors; cameras (including a couple of shots through their lenses); numerous ringing wind chimes; and foggy, misty landscapes of the beautiful Irish countryside.

Altman initially conceived of the film several years prior from the single image of a man moving from one room to the next, turning into a different person as he crossed in and out of view.  It is one of the most memorable images of the film.  From there, he wrote a short script that became the skeletal bones of what would eventually show up on screen.  He allowed his actors a lot of improvisation on set and sat with them each evening, working out what the next day scenes would contain.  While the end result is nothing like any other film of the director's, it was created in the roughshod manner of most of his movies.

It was long rumored that the film was destroyed by Columbia Pictures but in 2003, a negative was found and the film was released on DVD from MGM.  Arrow Academy has done a brand new 4K scan of the original negative and it looks amazing. Zsimgmond’s photography is intentionally soft and hazy but it looks simply gorgeous here.  Likewise, the audio is quite nice.  John Williams modernist score (supplemented by some really strange soundscapes from Stomu Yamashta) comes in beautifully, adding an eerie quality to the film while never drowning out the dialog.

It is loaded with extras including a full-length audio commentary from Same Deighan and Kat Ellinger plus a scene select one from Altman.  There is a new appreciation by critic Stephen Thrower, a new interview with Cathryn Harrison, and an archival one with Altman. It comes with Arrow's usual dual-sided cover art and a nice full-color booklet that includes a nice essay and a brief interview with Altman about the film.

Images is a bit of an odd film in Robert Altman’s career.  It looks and feels like nothing he ever made.  It was largely dismissed on initial release and has been widely forgotten since, yet it's one well worth watching.  While its plot doesn’t always make logical sense, its surrealist imagery and moving performance from Susannah York make it worth your time.  This new release from Arrow Academy will hopefully pull it out of obscurity and rightly place it amongst Altman’s better films.

Robert Altman's Images on Blu-ray is available March 20.

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