Unicorns

I watched Images (1972).

The story begins with Cathryn, played by Susannah York, at home and at work on her new children’s fantasy story, that involves unicorns. A phone is ringing and for a long time she simply ignores it.

When she does pick up the phone, it’s her friend with a long story of gossip… which gets broken off, and another voice comes in, telling her that her husband Hugh is having an affair right now.

When Hugh gets home he finds she’s taken all the receivers off the hook so she can’t be ring by the nasty, insinuating voice again.

There is a frantic moment when she thinks Hugh has been replaced by a different man, and she fights him off… and he is then transformed back into Hugh.

The couple head off for a break at their country cottage. Hugh is a keen sportsman and stops to shoot some quail. Cathryn is to head on to the cottage. She gazes down from the hillside and can see herself already arriving.

From hereon all the images in this film are unstable and unreliable. Events and dialogue seem to be occurring only to Cathryn and violent incidents are erased when a different pair of eyes enter the same scene. There is nothing to determine that in fact the couple ever reached the cottage, the conclusion could be interpreted as a flashback and reveal of what occurred at the hillside when the car stopped.

Within the cottage, the mystery man recurs and we hear that he is Rene, a lover Cathryn had for herself a few years earlier, assumed to have died in a plane crash.

At first resisting Rene’s appearance, Cathryn has a moment when she decides to play along with his private presence. The changeover is signalled by a moment in which she smiles directly at the film audience, while standing near Hugh’s camera (he seems to have expensive hobbies, as a very important man).

Smiling directly at the audience is repeated near the end of the film, perhaps indicating the character aware of herself as a character in a film without breaking the 4th wall explicitly (a similar moment occurs in the Lee Marvin film Point Blank).

Throughout this film we hear excepts of Cathryn reading aloud or internally narrating the manuscript she is working on. The soundtrack is a rather fractured, modernist sound, amplifying the noises of an empty house and the feelings of presence and unease Cathryn first had when entering the cottage. Hugh is prone to odd jokes, usually relying on wordplay, and he is not averse to what we would now call “gaslighting”, on at least one occasion pretending momentarily to not remember an errand he had to do.

Fun fact: one of Hugh’s jokes is “What’s the difference between a rabbit? Nothing – it’s both the same” which was reused in the children’s BBC series Jigsaw as “What’s the difference between a duck? One of its legs is both the same.” Clive Doig probably nicked that directly, since a jigsaw does play a role in this story.

The jigsaw is slowly assembled by Cathryn with assistance of Susannah (played by Cathryn Harrison), the daughter of one of their friends in the neighbourhood: painter Marcel, who has just been awarded custody against his ex-wife after threatening to use in court all the details of her numerous infidelities.

The symmetry that Cathryn is played by Susannah and Susannah is played by Cathryn is rather indicated in the credits and seems another nod by this film towards its own contrivance. The appearance of Marcel drives a great deal of lust and confusion amongst the 3 adults, and Cathryn seems unsure which man she is embracing and which moments persist or vanish. We are told that Cathryn is unsure or dishonest about whether she could ever have children and what she told the various men at various times; Marcel and Rene both seem to be manipulators but our heroine can turn against them.

It seems there are 2 Cathryns at large, distinguished by the colour of their coats, perhaps the split occurred on the hillside before arrival.

But central to all this action is the nature and production of images, not just through cameras but in mirrors and windows, and the inversions, mutations and fusions that they can produce, picturing a confusion of character’s identities. One section of Cathryn’s latest book has its heroes getting in to a discussion of the meaning of “the soul”.

The final piece of the jigsaw falls in to place, and it’s a unicorn, like the object of the story-within-the-story. The closing credits tell us that Susannah York was the author of In Search Of Unicorns.

See listing

While using Google, I notice that some of the moments that I picked as images to put in this Note have also been picked by other people for their notes. There seems to be a consensus on what the significant images in Images are.

5 thoughts on “Unicorns

  1. From what I remember, seeing it 20+ years ago, the moment they stop the car, and look down into the valley, and see themselves arriving at the cottage is a masterstroke of psychological horror.

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      1. I just don’t remember the “plot” in enough detail – it’s more of a mood piece, really?

        I saw it in an art gallery in Broadway Market in c.2002, incredibly enough, when it was already gentrifying but nothing like the Hooray Henry Horrorshow it is now – the son of the owner was so impressed with IMAGES he just put on a screening of it one evening, apropos of nothing whatsoever.

        I think I remember him saying it was filmed in Ireland, rather than Wales, or vice versa?

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      2. Right. That must have been his point – “set” in Wales, filmed in Ireland. Bit like Wales standing in for Romania in Michael Mann’s The Keep, and Wales standing in for Yorkshire in American Werewolf in London.

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