★★★ / ★★★★
While her husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), is out late because of a meeting at work, Cathryn (Susannah York) goes on about her business at home. A frustrated friend telephones but Cathryn finds herself unable to focus on the conversation because she keeps hearing a voice of another woman from the other line who claims that at that very moment, Hugh is with her and Cathryn is being made a fool of. But the friend claims to hear no such voice. And although Cathryn has hung up the phone, she is continually barraged by the woman’s verbal harassments. It becomes increasingly clear that the voice is coming from Cathryn’s mind.
Written and directed by Robert Altman, “Images” is unrelenting, horrifying, and honest in its portrayal of a woman suffering from a severe and unmedicated case of schizophrenia. The decision to couple her intense auditory hallucinations with equally perplexing visual hallucinations without one seeming to overpower the other proves effective and elegant. Due to Altman’s level of control, he is successful in constructing a certain aura of uncertainty each time our protagonist turns a corner and interacts with another person.
Sometimes an empty room is exactly as it seems. But then there are other rooms that reveal hidden horrors just when we think the lead character is safe. Close-ups of faces are plentiful and appropriate. First, it allows us to recognize and absorb the most minute emotions of the subject, whether it be Cathryn herself or her husband who is genuinely concerned of what is happening to his wife but incognizant to the roots of her affliction.
Second, it amplifies the suspense. When it fluidly pulls away or rapidly cuts into a wide shot, the focus shifts from the character’s intimate experiences to the space that she inhabits. During close-ups, sometimes we receive the full scope of her fantasies; during wide shots, however, we can see what is really going on. This is best utilized during Cathryn having sex, at least in her mind, with three men on separate beds. The three scenes running parallel with one another, there is a consistent but blurry close-up on the writing naked bodies, obviously a fantasy, which is eventually broken by a wide shot, the images now very sharp and divorced from yellow-orange glow, as Cathryn stands along the corridor with nothing on but a bath towel.
Furthermore, the music by John Williams makes Cathryn’s descent all the more chilling, sparing but always effective. Because the images on screen already has an intensity to them, oftentimes a random placing of a low but thundering chord or the howl of shattering glass is enough to push our concerns and fears that much further.
But the film is not just about well-earned thrills or horror. Despite her terrifying experiences, the material wants us to sympathize with Cathryn—we are scared for her, not of her. “Images” could easily have gone overboard especially with its eventual level of violence, imaginary or otherwise. By opting for a more subtle and expressive approach, it is able to underline the humanity behind the psychosis.