He had to wait for his moment, but when it arrived, Robert Altman grasped it with an iron grip. Into his 40’s by the time he broke out with M.A.S.H. in 1970, the following decade saw an incredible run of films that included McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975). Coming at the tail-end of this run, 3 Women proved one of his last critical successes before a decade in the relative wilderness. As befits a film that came to him through a half-formed dream, it’s a sinewy, elusive experience, hard to hold onto and undeniably powerful.

The 3 women of the title are mainly two, depending on how you view later personality shifts. Altman regular Shelley Duvall, who shared Best Actress at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for her role as Millie Lammoreaux here, is the charmless wannabe society girl of fictional California pensioners’ retreat, Desert Springs. She works in a spa caring for the retired occupants, but she sees herself as something more. Talking non-stop, she witters on about recipes, fashion and past conquests, flirting with neighbours and colleagues who openly mock her along the way.

Into her world comes Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a childish young woman who blows bubbles into chocolate milk, and gets excited on spotting a now defunct miniature golf course. Smitten with Millie, who has little interest in her other than a face to brag to and provide a bit of rent money, Pinky starts work at the spa and soon moves in with her stylish mentor.

The first part, sticking true to Altman’s ethos that character always trumps conventional narrative, plays without too much confusion, gradually escalating the tension between Millie and Pinky until an act of sexual desperation sees Pinky plunge off the railings of their apartment into the swimming pool below. Then things start to shift, the younger woman eventually awakening from a coma a whole new person. Or more precisely, as Millie. Pinky begins to exhibit all the behavioural tics of her one-time mentor, albeit much more successfully. She’s genuinely a hit with the local men who flock around her rather than dismissing her with casual barbs. Millie in turn starts to become Pinky, subdued and nervous, worried about the life her roommate lives.

All of this unfolds under Altman’s usual umbrella of tricks. Dialogue, true to life, is overlapping and sometimes indistinct. The film stock is over-exposed again, dulling the colours, while he adds a yellow hue to many scenes. There’s also a distinct musical score from Gerald Busby that adds to the woozy feel of the story, beautifully enhancing the confusing blend of personalities and merging of fact and fiction.

Altman can go too far. 3 Women sometimes overdoes the dreamy effect, focussing too often on the intimidating art of the third Woman, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), local artist and wife of a philandering cowboy (Robert Fortier) who lives in an odd tourist trap resort now gone to seed. Pinky’s nightmare sequence near the end that sets up the denouement throws in so many disconcerting visuals that it eventually starts to feel like overkill.

While some boundaries are overstepped, others are judged just right. Always one to tackle a taboo, there’s a scene where Pinky’s parents (or are they her parents – she claims otherwise) are witnessed having sex, an act the elderly are rarely seen engaging in. These littles touches, combined with powerfully compelling performances from Duvall and Spacek, possibly the two American actresses of recent decade’s best equipped to straddle the divide between madness and sanity, chalk 3 Women up in the Altman hit column. While only sporadically reaching the heights of his very best output, it’s not often too far behind.

3 Women was released on Blu-ray on 13th July. Extras include a new interview with David Thompson discussing the film, and an archive interview with Shelley Duvall from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.

Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Robert Altman
Stars: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule
Runtime: 124 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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