USA Great Britain Ireland (101 mi) 1972 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
USA Great Britain Ireland (101 mi) 1972 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
I’m not really making love with him. That will make anything all right.
—Cathryn (Susannah York)
Made at the peak of his creative powers between McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973), two of the director’s most memorable works, Altman made this strange little film about schizophrenia, the second of his “Female Subjectivity” Trilogy, coming between That Cold Day In the Park (1969) and 3 Women (1977). While it’s not hard to imagine a little girl living in a fantasy world of fairy tales and dreams, viewed as the picture of innocence, yet here’s it’s a beautiful grown woman who appears equally stuck in an imaginary world, a strange and haunting place where the world is not as it seems, where reality comes and goes with the whims of the imagination, all running together creating a peculiar netherworld, much like the macabre and sinister universe of Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1932), but this is the world as she sees it, where she seemingly floats in and out of both worlds, as the film takes place almost entirely inside a woman’s subconscious. It’s interestingly one of the least Altmanesque films the director has ever made, where it doesn’t feature overlapping dialogue, a multitude of characters, multiple themes, several events happening simultaneously within the same frame, or an improvisational feel, instead it has a narrow focus, perhaps his most complete foray into the horror genre with its array of creepy effects, venturing into the Dario Argento art house horror genre to reveal one woman’s descent into madness. Susannah York won the Best Actress Award at the premiere in Cannes, where Sandra Dennis in That Cold Day In the Park is a direct link to Susannah York here, offering a striking performance as the central character Cathryn, where the camera never leaves her, as Altman uses a more experimental style to capture a woman caught between two worlds, both merging into one another, with a brilliant sound design by musical composer John Williams and Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta, mixing wind chimes fluttering in the breeze with special sound effects to reflect her altered state of consciousness, where the audience is continually questioning what is real and what isn’t. Cathryn has a complacently bourgeois husband Hugh, René Auberjonois, who sees the world as it is, representing one reality, combined with the world as it appears to her, where the majority of the film is reflective of her continuously fluctuating interior moods. When viewed as a cultural oppression of women, there seems to be little fallback position, as Cathryn both rebels against and then withdraws from her real husband, inventing alternative options only through an abnormal psychology, perhaps viewed as unfathomable by men, where throughout the trilogy Altman deals with the crises of women through various internalized neuroses. On the other hand, it’s not too far fetched to see the film as a portrait of an artist, seeing the world much as Cathryn does, where the jagged edges of creative artistry continually fluctuate and evolve over time.
Originating from an Altman idea, the film is brilliantly shot in Ireland around a lakeland location of Lough Bray, County Wicklow by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with breathtaking panoramic vistas capturing a wintry desolation, where much of this film has a painterly appearance, beautifully mixing the natural pastoral beauty outside, occasionally delving into fantasy, with exquisitely designed interior sets by Leon Ericksen that reflect a super modern look, where each door or room leads to another world, all feeding into Cathryn’s psychosis. Opening with a story that she’s writing that at the same time is taking her into a world that is frightening, the entire film is layered in a children’s book called In Search of Unicorns, a children’s fantasy novel actually written by Susannah York that she narrates throughout, where the story is her escapism from her twisted sense of reality, finding comfort in the safety of children’s images, where things the audience sees appear to be other things to her. Throughout the film, the presence of the camera gives the viewer the intimate effect of being outside looking in, where there are strange incongruities throughout, becoming a fascinating portrait of mental instability, much of it captured with dreamlike imagery. The audience is immediately struck by her distorted sense of reality, where she suspects her husband of sexual indiscretions that exist only in her own mind, which is probably her way of avoiding her own indiscretions. Perhaps the biggest jolt is when her husband Hugh turns into someone who isn’t there, René (Marcel Bozzuffi), a ghost from the past who has come to pay a visit, where the “visitor” remains to her just as real as anything else. While she tries to ignore the reappearance of these haunting apparitions, knowing in some instances (a dead lover) they’re not really there, but they inevitably lure her into their sexual fantasies where she relives past experiences in her life that are most likely based on real occurrences, where for her, the present and the past exist simultaneously, like a kind of involuntary time traveling, which is especially evident in a scene when she stands atop a hill overlooking a view of herself pulling into a driveway below. It’s not a stretch to think this influenced Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), with Jack Nicholson similarly gazing down into the maze at the Overlook Hotel, tracking his wife and son as they navigate its corridors.
When her husband Hugh takes her out to their country estate, a dream cottage beautifully located on a lake and within walking distance of a majestic waterfall in what appears to be a magical forest with a herd of sheep running free, Cathryn continues to see visions, having violent episodes often when she’s left alone, where the world closes in on her much like Catherine Deneuve’s hallucinations in Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965). Haunted by unwelcome memories that she tries to suppress, and the thought of a lonely childhood where she was often forced to “invent” friends, we’re never told specifically what is ailing Cathryn, or if the frequency and intensity of her schizophrenic episodes have grown more acute. Instead, alone with the subjective point of view of the central figure, the audience is reeled into the same claustrophobic existence where these episodes are conspiring against her. Hugh also brings home a creepy old friend, Marcel (Hugh Millais), who has recently obtained custody of his 12-year old daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison), who bears a striking resemblance to a young Cathryn. The lecherous Marcel instantly hits on Cathryn, much like René, with both characters (along with her husband) feeling almost interchangeable, where they obviously have some history, though it’s Susannah that attracts the attention of Cathryn, where they’re both seen attempting to piece together a jigsaw puzzle of what turns out to be the country house where they live, where it’s clear in Susannah she sees a younger version of herself, fused together in a mirror image out of Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), where the lines of reality are blurred, mixed with the fantasy elements of the story and the nearby magical forest. Marcel’s perceived sexual aggressiveness is fended off while at the same time succumbed to, where he tells her, “You know what you are? You’re a schizo one minute fighting like a tiger and the next all love and kisses.” Because she imagines characters that don’t exist, she can’t distinguish whether his sexual advances are real, though she eventually confronts her “visitors,” awakening something deeply unsettling inside that resembles a madness within, where eventually the dead mix with what’s real, and she’s left questioning what she’s done. Cathryn is always quick to invent fictitious scenarios to explain what otherwise resembles a catastrophe, as schizophrenics that live with this condition are used to covering up their hallucinations, where they routinely invent excuses or lies to convince others that everything’s all right, even as they are slipping further into the void.
By the end, Altman’s film resembles the surreal landscape of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997) with its infamous identity schism. Cathryn drives along the road at night returning back to the city for what she believes is her waiting husband, where she encounters along the way, among other things, haunting images of ghosts, including one of herself beckoning for help, “Let me in Cathryn. What’s the matter with you?” where she is literally fighting for control of her own soul, which appears fragile and easily lost in the mist. She thinks she has a handle on her visions, growing elated at the thought all the ghosts are gone, leaving her feeling somewhat euphoric, driving ecstatically through a phantasmagorical world of brightly saturated colors, illusion and hallucination, where Altman loves to use shots through glass, odd camera angles, zoom in and out of focus, or use mirrored images that serve as reflections of the past, providing an altered expression of reality, where the camera sees what Cathryn sees throughout, a window into schizophrenia. The entire film plays out like a nightmarish fever dream that literally breathes psychological intensity, using eerie and atmospheric sounds of percussion along with weird images that seem to offer a view of the occult. The film is an impressionistic drama that takes us on a mysterious journey into the maze of a mental labyrinth, where each twist and turn leaves us even further removed from where we started. By the end, Cathryn remains an Alice down the rabbit hole enigma and has only retreated further into her stories, where her grip on reality is even less tenuous, relying upon the kindness of others, “Hugh will be here in a moment and we’ll see who’s here and who isn’t.” The complex and smartly thought-out film is well acted, beautifully constructed, and not like anything else Altman has ever done, where he presents the fear and isolation associated with a personality disorder, showing how little support and actual communication is offered, reflecting the depths of alienation and trauma. One of the clever touches is Altman creating characters using the real names of the actors, where Cathryn is played by Susannah York, Susannah is played by Cathryn Harrison, René is played by Marcel Bozzuffi, Marcel is played by Hugh Millais, and Hugh is played by René Auberjonois. The film was originally released in Chicago at the Biograph Theater on a double bill with Nicolas Roeg’s Don't Look Now (1973), both emotionally cold films, but dreamy, psychologically obtuse thrillers having much in common, particularly in the extraordinary visual compositions and artful expression of a fractured reality, but this is one of the few Altman films that actually excels in weaving a tightly constructed narrative.