Cathryn (Susannah York) is a children's book writer who is alone one night in her apartment, when the phone starts to ring. It's her friend on the other line, and her conversation, which Cathryn is only half listening to, is interrupted by a woman's voice asking if Cathryn knows where her husband is tonight. She thinks it's a crossed line, but when she hangs up, the mysterious woman calls again, accusing her husband of committing adultery. The frightened Cathyn leaves all the phones off the hook until her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) returns home, and he reassures her, until the moment when they share a kiss, and it's then he is suddenly replaced with another man - what is going on in Cathryn's head?
Writer and director Robert Altman claimed that this disorienting study in psychological confusion was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Persona, yet it more closely resembles Roman Polanski's Repulsion, with its schizophrenic heroine apparently driven to murder by her personal demons. Cathryn is haunted by people in her past as well as those in her present, but unlike Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, she is well aware that she is ill, and disbelieves what she sees, reasoning that the only way to rid herself of the visions is to act out their destruction.
The man she has seen briefly replacing her husband is Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi - for some unexplained reason, all the actors have swapped names for their characters), her last husband who has been dead three years due to a plane crash. She knows that his visitations cannot be real, but he is very persuasive. When an old friend Marcel (Hugh Millais) arrives at the house with his young daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison) he immediately tries to seduce Cathryn, despite her protests, and soon she is not sure whether his advances are part of her psychosis, particularly when Marcel turns into Hugh.
Unlike Persona, Images leads up to a guessable twist that makes enough sense of what has gone before to make the story less impenetrable. It doesn't explain everything, however; we are still in the dark about Susannah - is she a younger version of Cathryn? And Cathryn literally suffers a split personality when she sees herself from a distance across the landscape, or advancing on her in a bewildered state. All through the film there is York's narration, taken from her own children's book In Search of Unicorns, which doesn't clear anything up but adds another layer of enigma.
Images takes the view of the unreliable narrator to keep you guessing. As Cathryn seems to adopt murder as a way of getting rid of her visions, we don't know if she is really killing or just hallucinating - the truth as cloudy as the images we constantly see through windows or reflected in mirrors. York's excellent perfomance is delicate and compassionate, expertly summing up the contradictory thoughts running through Cathryn's head. But there's something uncomfortable about the way such a vulnerable character is toyed with by the film makers, and it doesn't say much profound about Cathryn's state of mind - she is conflicted in love and sex, and is guilty about not having children. In truth, it's kind of tricksy. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography and the distinctive music by John Williams and Stomu Yamashta add class to the project.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.