3 Women (1977)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Robert Altman may be known for sprawling ensemble pieces such as Nashville, Short Cuts and Gosford Park, but like all great filmmakers, his range extends far beyond the category into which he has been pigeonholed. In 1977, following the ambitious epics Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Altman went in a different direction with the intimate chamber piece 3 Women. Heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, the film tells a tragic story of misguided souls and combines surrealism with satire to touching, funny and ultimately quite disturbing effect.

Altman has said that the concept for 3 Women came to him in a dream, and stylistically the film eschews the documentary look of Nashville in favor of a hypnotic atmosphere and impressionistic images. The film’s combination of dreamlike unreality and sharp commentary on contemporary media foreshadows The Player, one of Altman’s most popular pictures, yet whereas The Player integrates these elements within the framework of a murder mystery, 3 Women finds Altman working without the security that genre provides. 3 Women is almost entirely character-driven, and what makes the film rewarding for its fans and frustrating for its critics is the fact that it’s a character study about people whose personalities are undefined; the women struggle to find their identities either by imitating each other or regurgitating the slogans they find in women’s magazines, while the lone significant male character defines himself according to macho codes that are silly and outdated.

Cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr., ASC (credited as Chuck Rosher) shot 3 Women between two other Altman productions: Robert Benton’s The Late Show and Altman’s A Wedding. These collaborations were in keeping with Altman’s master plan at the time, which was to employ a number of reliable craftsmen on a year-round basis so they would be available whenever he needed them. The director’s dream of a self-contained, independent studio was short-lived, but his ambition generated a number of interesting films, including A Perfect Couple, H.E.A.L.T.H., Quintet and Welcome to L.A.

3 Women is perhaps the boldest of these pictures, and its beautiful images have been perfectly preserved by The Criterion Collection on this DVD. Altman’s experimental work with sound and image has led to some notable home-video disasters, but this high-definition transfer captures Rosher’s images in all of their widescreen splendor. Although the number of characters and locations is fairly small, Rosher’s compositions are quite intricate. Actors are photographed through windows, mirrors, water, doorways and other framing devices that reinforce the dreamlike nature of the piece, and the color palette creates a palpable sense of the heat and dust that surround the characters.

As in many of Altman’s films, the camera is always on the move, panning, dollying and zooming to constantly reframe the action. The camerawork is complemented by imaginative editing that continually alters the viewer’s perspective, providing a perfect visual corollary for the aimlessness and confusion that afflicts the lead characters. The digitally remastered soundtrack allows close study of both the multi-layered sound design and Gerald Busby’s atonal score.

The disc’s supplements include an assortment of trailers, TV spots and production and publicity stills. There’s also a very instructive audio commentary by Altman in which he combines information specific to this production with general observations about filmmaking. Among his revelations is that 3 Women’s story grew out of discoveries made during location scouting, casting and shooting. Altman also acknowledges Rosher’s significant contributions to the project, and cites the cinematographer’s earlier work as an assistant to Conrad Hall, ASC (who had worked as an assistant on one of Altman’s TV productions years earlier). The director praises Rosher repeatedly and shares his own theories on lighting to illustrate just how sharp a cameraman needs to be to put those theories into practice. Altman devotes more attention to the visual component of his work than most directors do in their audio DVD commentaries, and his insights make this disc essential viewing for filmmakers and film students alike.

— Jim Hemphill

<< previous

© 2004 American Cinematographer.