3 Women
Reviewed in Spring 1999
Click here for the 3 Women entry in my Favorite Films Countdown
Director: Robert Altman. Cast: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Sierra Pecheur, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell. Screenplay: Robert Altman.

Photo © 1977 20th Century Fox/Lion's Gate Films
One of the great crimes in the expansion of the video universe is that no one has yet offered a commercial distribution to Robert Altman's astonishing 1977 film 3 Women, which ranks with Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller as one of the auteur's greatest triumphs. Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek star as young women sharing an apartment in Southern California. Spacek, who has just arrived from Texas and meets Duvall at her new job in a physical-rehabilitation center, tries as hard as she can to win the affection of her garrulous but slightly imperious new friend. In fact, Duvall seems more and more frustrated with her waifish roommate, but we wonder if her irritation stems from the latent realization that Spacek is the only person who will give her the time of day. Every day Duvall strolls into the patioed courtyard of her stucco apartment complex, chirping flirtations and straining for social credibility among the more relaxed, handsome men and women who congregate around the outdoor pool. Is Duvall so vapid that she does not sense their rejection, or is she so fantastically wounded by their ridicule that she survives only by pretending not to notice?

3 Women zooms in on the strange relationship between Spacek and Duvall at a deliberately slow but tantalizing pace, occasionally widening its lens to other figures in their lives like the mute, enigmatic artist (Janice Rule) whose grotesque, stylized murals decorate several buildings and edifices in the women's neighborhood. Is she the third woman of the title? How could she be, since she exchanges no words or even many looks with the other two characters? The genius Altman displayed in his heyday of the 1970s was that each successive film embarked on an entirely new stylistic and thematic experiment. Certainly no film could mark more of a shift from the panoramic, exuberant Nashville than this concentrated, surreal nightmare, though certain signature touches—pitch-perfect performances, brilliant use of color and close-ups, and a shattering climax—identify the film as Altman's. Viewers could spend hours debating even the basic story of 3 Women, but the movie ultimately provides a stunning image of what happens to people when a city or a society loses and forgets them, or when one's desires compete too heavily with those of one's friends, or when one's own sense of identity depends too heavily on relationships with other people. Like 1995's Safe, another dark, cryptic diagnosis of peculiarly Southern Californian diseases, 3 Women works almost like an understated horror movie—a film that's all the more scary because no one thinks to scream. Grade: A–

Cannes Film Festival: Best Actress (Duvall; tie)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actress (Spacek)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Duvall)

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