If I had to describe Robert Altman in one word--and I wasn't allowed to use 'genius'--I'd have to go with 'ambitious.' He subverted genre films with works like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Western) and The Long Goodbye (detective noir); put out blistering satires like M*A*S*H, The Player and Prêt-à-Porter; and wove cinematic tapestries with immense casts (Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park). Choosing his most ambitious film is therefore redundant and generally depends on what criteria you're using, but you could make a strong argument for his 1977 ephemeral masterpiece 3 Women.
Altman thought up the film when he apparently had a dream that laid down the entire film for him, down to the casting. He woke up and wrote a script of it, and boom: say hello to 3 Women. As is befitting a film based on a dream, 3 Women is a rambling, indefinable journey, ethereal and haunting in its soft look and harsh feel. I couldn't possibly tell you what the film was trying to say overall, but then I don't think Altman could either.
Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule play the titular women, and all start out in defined female archetypes before slowly becoming something else entirely. Duvall plays Millie, a physical therapist at a care center; at the start of the film, Pinky Rose (Spacek) gets a job at the same center and Millie shows her the ropes. Pinky immediately looks up to Millie, who breathlessly explains her hobbies and tastes: how she dresses according to the latest magazines, how she plans meals according to the preparation they require, etc. Hers is an endless prattle, so self-absorbed that she never notices that all the neighbors and co-workers she badgers pay no attention to her and even mock her behind her back.
Not Pinky, though. She becomes obsessed with Millie, following her around and eavesdropping on conversations. When Millie's roommate Deidre moves out, Pinky jumps at the chance to be her new flatmate in order to feed her idol-worship. At their complex, we meet the third woman of the story, Willie (Rule), a pregnant woman who drains the pool and paints disturbing murals on the sides and floor. She wades through the film sad and empty; her husband Edgar, the only prominent male of the story, flirts with Pinky and even comes to Millie's apartment while his wife is in labor, just to have a little fun.
The first half of the film plays out with surprising realism, given the fact that it's come from a dream: at the very least it works as a portrait of the California desert, but we get some revealing character moments as Altman drifts over his subjects. We watch as Millie makes herself out to be the center of the world, only to be utterly ignored by everyone. She kind of deserves it, but my heart still broke when she sat between two doctors in the hospital next to the care center and prattled on and on, and kept going even though (or perhaps because) no one around her gave a damn.
Then something strange happens near the first hour-mark: Millie kicks Pinky out of her bed so she and Edgar can get down to it, and Pinky throws herself into the apartment pool in a rage, putting her into a coma. When she wakes up, she does not recognize her parents and insists that she is Millie. Here the dream aspect kicks in big time, as Altman moves through random shots and strange lighting that get thrown together in ways that cannot be explained. Quite right, if you ask me: any attempt to piece together and tell you a meaning or a message would have turned the film into cheap psychoanalysis.
I'm told the film parallels Ingmar Bergman's Persona, but I won't get my hands on that film until this Saturday, so I cannot say. Both apparently feature two female characters who in effect swap characters with each other: following her accident, Pinky dresses as Millie and even writes in Millie's diary. When Millie calls her Pinky, she blows a fuse. "My name is Mildred!" she shrieks. Edgar's wooing of Millie indirectly led to the suicide attempt, and at the end of the film suddenly Edgar moves on to Pinky.
What do these last sequences mean? Damned if I know. I'll have to go and buy myself a copy of the film and watch it several times to come up with anything. At the same time, I wonder if we're supposed to take anything from it at all. It's a dream. Frankly, everyone in this film deserves credit for even having the audacity to make it; that it turns out completely captivating and interesting only surprises me further. 3 Women easily belongs on the short list of Altman's work, and it's one of the best examples of the endless possibilities of film.