Well before he directed the 1985 movie adaptation of Sam Shepard's play Fool For Love, Robert Altman had already made trips into mythopoeic, Shepard-esque psychodrama. Both 1972's Images and 1977's 3 Women break from his shaggy genre revisions and American tableaux to indulge a little "you know what would be heavy?" experimentation. The story for 3 Women actually came to Altman in a dream, and he fills it with askew imagery, often filtered through water or reflected in mirrors, and cloaked in gaudy shades of yellow and purple.
Sissy Spacek stars as a mousy young woman who takes a job at a California desert health spa, latches onto self-absorbed fashion victim Shelley Duvall, and soon literally becomes a more confident, popular version of her hapless idol. It's a superb actors' showcase, with Spacek's Texas meekness and Duvall's chatterbox gawkiness playing off each other in a way that's both theatrical and real. Before it gets metaphysical, 3 Women is loaded with funny, well-observed moments like Duvall's recipe for "Penthouse Chicken," which requires a "a can of tomato soup… it takes a whole hour to cook, but it's worth it." Though self-consciously arty, 3 Women is a more fluid Ingmar Bergman riff than what Woody Allen was coming up with around the same time, mainly because Altman's emphasis on abandoned tourist traps and singles' apartment complexes rivals his equally neglected California Split as a vivisection of '70s West Coast banality.
That truthful flavor is missing from Fool For Love, the first sample of Altman's decadelong "filmed play" era to make it to DVD. Shepard's play is magnificently imagined from a visual standpoint, as Altman restlessly picks over the neon-lit motel set, staging flashbacks in the same frame as the present action. Nevertheless, the perverse story of a randy cowboy (played by Shepard himself) and his sister/lover Kim Basinger needs the tension of live performance for its incest-as-metaphor diagram to pop out. Even with Randy Quaid and Harry Dean Stanton breathing life into the supporting performances, and Basinger and Shepard exploring the full range of sexual frustration, Fool For Love is too removed from the real world to connect as more than a spooky, extradimensional love story.
The Fool For Love DVD adds an interview with Altman and a written statement in which he explains that though some people have seen Fool For Love as a comedy or a thriller, that was never his vision for it. Similarly, on the commentary track for Criterion's 3 Women DVD, Altman acknowledges the movie's pretentiousness while insisting that, flaws and all, it's a valid record of what he saw in the world at the time it was made. Both confessions explain why even Altman's misfires endure: His art is built on his own insightful observations.