Considering the work of American director Robert Altman brings to mind certain visuals. A bumbling private eye traversing scandal-soaked California in The Long Goodbye (1973). A desperate gunman traipsing through the snow of a mining town in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). The patchwork of country music stars and wannabes that make up the huge cast of Nashville (1975). In other words, Altman was one of the great exponents of postwar Americana. Yet, in 1972, he briefly turned his back on all things USA and made his first British production, and one of the strangest films of the period: Images.

Images, which premiered at Cannes 50 years ago, on 9 May, explores the fractured mind of children’s author Cathryn (Susannah York). After receiving some intimidating phone calls at her flat in London, her distress is enough to convince her husband Hugh (René Auberjonois) that she needs time away from the city. He takes her to his remote cottage in the Irish countryside, where he hopes Cathryn will do some work on her upcoming book. 

But in her new bolthole, the isolation plays on Cathryn’s mind. She begins to see Hugh transform into her dead lover René (Marcel Bozzuffiand), and is further plagued by her ex, Marcel (Hugh Millais), and his daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), who live nearby. The hallucinations turn more visceral as Cathryn’s mental state worsens, and she is haunted by a doppelgänger. When she turns to violence, who – in reality – is on the receiving end of her actions?

Images (1972)

That Images was made in the thick of Robert Altman’s golden period of the early 1970s makes it all the stranger. Although its production was sandwiched between the more typically Altmanesque projects of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye, thematically it has more in common with his mysterious 1969 film That Cold Day in the Park and his 1977 psychodrama 3 Women.

Co-written by the film’s lead Susannah York, Images plays increasingly complex games with perception. The things Cathryn witnesses become so violent and disturbing that her coping mechanism is to detach herself from the world and treat everything witnessed as merely an image. These images begin with the slippage between lovers – is Cathryn talking to her husband or her dead ex? But the ambiguity increases exponentially as her visions become more violent.

Requiem for a Village (1976)

Everything about the film is tricky, even down to the characters sharing names with different members of the cast. In later years, Altman name-checked Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) as an influence; both films are about fracturing identity, where obsession turns to ambiguous nightmare. Yet, by situating the story within the rural Irish landscape, Images fits more neatly alongside the wave of British films of the period that tackled strangeness and violence in the countryside.

Ambiguity and landscape went hand-in-hand in British cinema of the 1970s. Rural retreats were often cursed; filled with madness, murder and sacrifice. Unusual hallucinations were naturally coupled with the rural landscape too. In films such as Fred Burnley’s Neither the Sea nor the Sand (1972), David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village (1975) and Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978), landscape turns reality upside down – in ways that were rarely good for the mind. If anything, going to the countryside in 1970s British cinema was the most basic mistake you could make. Just ask Keith and Candice from Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976).

When Cathryn’s doppelgänger appears, emerging initially out of the land, the appearance has more in common with the Hammer House of Horror episode ‘The Two Faces of Evil’ (1980) than, say, Roman Polanski’s equally harrowing doppelgänger drama The Tenant (1976). These are still distinctly rural horrors.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Even the moment of Cathryn using a shotgun (but against what and whom exactly constantly shifts) feels reminiscent of another American’s recent foray to the British Isles: Sam Peckinpah. You’re reminded of Dustin Hoffman wielding his shotgun in Peckinpah’s Cornish-set Straw Dogs (1971), though unlike Hoffman’s character, Cathryn is unsure as to what she has blown apart with the weapon. A camera, the ghost of a dead lover, her husband?

In spite of the crossover of some themes with his other work, Altman’s film is ultimately an anomaly, an odd detour from his style. It’s a drama that maps its psychology quite literally, expressing the decade’s turn toward pessimism in the aftermath of the 1960s. Fifty years on, it continues to resonate, particularly in regards to the aura of wellness that now surrounds our relationship to the countryside. Going back to the land wasn’t going to cure anything for Cathryn. In Images, madness and the land are one.