3 Women

The dream-inspired culmination of Robert Altman's string of 70s classics.



Robert Altman defines the American cinema of the 1970s. The intervening years have not burnished his reputation, but at his peak, no director—be it Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, or even Francis Coppola—could compare with the genre diversity and socio-political acumen Altman displayed in that most experimental of decades.


3 Women(1977), released last month by Criterion, is widely seen as the last significant film from that period of Altman's career. Famously inspired by a dream Altman had with his wife sick in hospital, 3 Women stars Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek as co-workers at a vaguely disreputable spa in a California desert town. Neither woman seems authentic; Duvall's endless patter about dating and recipes comes straight from women's magazines, while Spacek, wide-eyed and eerily sensitive, is quick to imitate Duvall or anyone else she encounters. The third woman of the title, played by Janice Rule, is a silent, pregnant artist often seen painting reptilian male and female creatures at the bottom of an empty swimming pool behind a desolate, Western-themed bar.


"To me, this whole film was inside the womb," Altman says on the DVD's commentary track, and 3 Women is indeed thick with symbolic imagery. Twins, shots filtered through water, and mirror images all further 3 Women's theme of feminine identity and loss. As Spacek gradually usurps Duvall's socially constituted identity, Altman broadens the film's focus by setting up archetypal male images—guns, motorcycles, policemen—against Rule's disturbing artwork. The result is impressionistic and dreamlike, if a touch heavy-handed.


If 3 Women seems a strange denouement to a creative stint that began with a war comedy (M.A.S.H.) and included a staggeringly ambitious American epic (Nashville) and a political lament disguised as a Western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), it should be remembered that symbiosis has always been a topic of Altman's work. With 3 Women, he simply reduced the scale. Often compared to Ingmar Bergman's 1966 feature Persona, in which a nurse and convalescent actress switch identities, 3 Women is more insightful than Bergman's film. The acuity of Bergman's insight was based in individual guilt, an obsession that too rigidly defined his characters. Altman, more instinctive than Bergman, placed 3 Women in the frame of culture and gender rather than cinema and religion, allowing for greater ambiguity. As Altman, ever the democrat, says in the DVD commentary, "I don't think there's six degrees of separation [between people]. I think there's about a half degree."


--Joshua Avram

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