Reviewing Nashville, Pauline Kael described Robert Altman’s self-proclaiming apex as, among other things, “an Altman party.” And so it is: it’s often said that one of the great pleasures of Altman’s free-forming style is how it enables his stable of actors to simply “be” on camera. His best movies (several of which, Nashville included, are upcoming at Moving Image’s ongoing lionization) comfortably inhabit unraveling worlds, leaving a warm afterglow no matter how pessimistic their conclusions.
In which case Images unnerves because that halo of simply “being” is so coldly withheld. The cast list is a bit of a giveaway: Susannah York plays “Cathryn,” Cathryn Harrison plays “Susannah,” and Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, and Hugh Millais play “Hugh,” Rene,” and “Marcel,” respectively. (Cheap trick, sure, but imagine what it was like on set.) Altman aligns the audience with York’s schizoid gaze, slowly zooming in on her double in P.O.V. shots and staging her murderous hallucinations objectively to deconstruct a stable sense of self. And as shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the English country house setting has an autumnal chill appropriately evocative of the menacing persistence of memory; the atmosphere carries Altman’s elegant puzzle narrative (complete with, yes, an actual jigsaw puzzle worked on by the characters throughout) agreeably towards its shoehorned resolution.
3 Women, though, sets Images’s off-balance tension loose of any determination. The story supposedly came to Altman in a dream, and the movie is destabalizing for the same reason the recent spate of J-Horror films are: there’s no logically governed reality to cling to. Not when identity is so malleable. The first hour, with awkward, overgrown preadolescent Sissy Spacek cleaving to coworker and roommate Shelley Duvall, is portentous in a lurking Single White Female sort of way; that’s not even taking into account the brooding music, perspective-refracting water and mirror imagery, and nearly mute identical twins. And once the trauma and subsequent transference set in, Altman keeps reshuffling rather than settling on an explanation. Through it all is Duvall, a pipe cleaner with dinner plate eyes, who worked out much of her character on her own: Millie Lammoreaux, au courant and totally oblivious (even to the edge of her bright yellow skirt sticking out her car door). Duvall’s oddball naturalism in the midst of such uncertainty is 3 Women’s kick: she was heading for the Altman party but ended up here instead, and watching her blithely assured sense of “being” slowly undercut is genuinely terrifying.