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Arrow Video’s release earlier this year of their new restoration of Robert Altman’s Images gives a wider audience a chance to reevaluate a film that seems to have been buried over the decades. Poor initial distribution, especially in the US, and mixed critical reviews combined to stifle the reception of this remarkable effort that occurs in the middle of Altman’s celebrated decade of the 1970s. He made Images in Ireland with backing of a British production company after his huge hit MASH, the bizarrely inventive Brewster McCloud,and the celebrated McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but before he returned to the US to create a quartet of films in 1973-75 that culminated in the epic Nashville. It is inevitable with a director with as long, varied, and prolific a career as Altman that some films will be better than others, and that some would find an audience while others would not. But it isn’t always the case that the quality and the popularity of a movie are perfectly correlated, and Images is a case where this is out of joint.
Images is the story of a woman who is going mad—more precisely, she is experiencing a type of schizophrenia that leads her to see and hear people and voices that aren’t really there. The woman, Cathryn (Susannah York), is writing a children’s story called In Search of Unicorns, which we hear portions of in voice-over narration throughout the film as she meditates on the story, or perhaps is composing it in her mind. She is writing at home alone when her work is interrupted by a phone call from her friend. The first intimation of a break in literal reality comes when there is an apparent crossed line on the phone, and a new voice on the phone interrupts her conversation to warn Cathryn that her husband is at that moment meeting another woman. If the line was crossed by chance, then how would the voice on the other end have been able to tell Cathryn this intimate information? Before we can find a resolution to this mystery, a more startling one is presented. When her husband Hugh (René Auberjonois) returns, he assures her that the phone message was untrue. But just as he moves to embrace Cathryn to provide her comfort, she sees a different man in his place, and leaps up from her bed screaming in fright.