Update 2018: How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded, evasive truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always at the beginning of 3 Women, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare by the conclusion. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.
What’s so fascinating about 3 Women is that it retains so much of Altman’s typical sensibility, from his evocative sense of place to his shaggy, non-committal attitude toward the forward push of narrative, but it twists those features into an entirely different, slantwise milieu. To wit, 3 Women elastically mobilizes Altman’s typically wide, expansive canvas, for instance, not to conjure a community-spanning horizontal weave, as in Nashville, but to probe the psychological lonelines of two women locked into a particularly demented pas de deux of self and other.
Compared to Altman’s typically wistful realism, then, 3 Women is a more mannered vision, a West that doesn’t shuttle us into the chaotic instability of the social world so much as stage a difficult, near-unfathomable tableau for us to parse, one where the fractured, contorted intimacy of two women is more than enough to disorient our conception of selfhood. Like several of Altman’s earlier films, this is still a vision of a dilapidated West. And this “West” is no less a canvas for the self, no less a place where people go to find themselves, even more than 75 years after the “death” of the “real” Wild West. But in Altman’s wonderfully misshapen variation, the West, and Western fiction, is also where identities blur and bleed, where spectral figures wander across the land and seem to diffuse into space itself, where one’s sense of self is tested not against the might of an unforgiving landscape but against the soul of another. Call it McCabe & Ms. Ullmann (and Andersson).
Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s.