Ava DuVernay, Selma, 2014, color, sound, 127 minutes. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo).

A FILM OF GRIPPING IMMEDIACY, Ava DuVernay’s Selma opens with moments of intimacy and pageantry quickly followed by terrorism and carnage. Hours before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), standing in an Oslo hotel room, is softly, playfully grumbling to his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), about having to wear an ascot for the ceremony. Shortly after King is welcomed onstage by a Norwegian dignitary, four girls are shown making their way down a flight of church stairs, bantering and laughing one second, dead and buried under rubble the next.

This jolting achronological prologue—King received the Nobel in December 1964; the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing occurred in September 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama—brilliantly establishes that Selma will be as forthright in its portrayal of the man once called “the moral leader of our nation” as in its depiction of the barbarity that the reverend and his followers confronted. In its focus on the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches from March 1965—held to protest voting discrimination against blacks—DuVernay’s film lays bare not only the public and private struggles of a great leader but also the machinations of state-sanctioned hate—a legacy that this country seems doomed never to escape.

A large part of Selma’s success is rooted in Oyelowo’s superb, nuanced portrayal of a figure held to be a near deity who, over the past four decades, has been played on screens big and small by actors ranging from Paul Winfield to LeVar Burton. This King is a man not immune to despair or remorse: The scene in which Coretta asks her husband about past infidelities stands among the most honest explorations of marriage I’ve seen all year. (Ejogo, though in a much smaller role, is just as excellent as her costar, restoring another martyr to full, wrenching life.) Oyelowo also brings out the cunningness of the complex statesman, one who sees in every instance of conflict with Alabama’s peckerwoods an opportunity for maximum media exposure. “The Selma courthouse—the perfect stage,” King tells his lieutenants; the reporters and photographers who capture the clubbings ordered by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) of peaceful African American demonstrators will raise the “white consciousness” of the nation.

The white man whose awareness matters most, of course, is President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). The scenes of LBJ’s foot-dragging—“This votin’ thing is just gonna have to wait,” he barks at King during one of several meetings in the Oval Office—and of his tête-à-têtes with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and George Wallace (Tim Roth) don’t entirely avoid the cartoonishness that sunk Lee Daniels’s 2013 civil rights melodrama, The Butler. And there are a few too many moments when acronyms are needlessly spelled out (“We’re the SCLC—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”), or when characters utter expressions that clang as anachronisms: “Let’s do this,” says Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) before the marchers attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the second time. (Selma’s script is by first-time screenwriter Paul Webb; DuVernay reportedly did some rewriting.)

These occasional blunders, however, do not vitiate Selma’s urgency. It is by now wholly self-evident that the events depicted in Alabama—and the White House—from fifty years ago are not sealed in the benighted past. (I saw DuVernay’s film six days after a grand jury failed to indict a police officer in the killing of Michael Brown and three days before the same ruling was issued in Eric Garner’s death.) “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever,” King proclaimed from the steps of the state capitol on March 25, 1965, after the march’s completion. A half-century later, the lie still thrives.

Melissa Anderson

Selma opens in limited release on December 25.

Late Great


John Huston, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor).

JOHN HUSTON doesn’t have a flawless track record as a film director, but few have so perfectly embodied the idea of what a film director ought to be. With his deliciously drawn-out, folksy baritone and those long, eloquent hands, Huston exuded authority—a quality which other directors were happy to take advantage of. When Otto Preminger needed someone to play a Boston prelate in The Cardinal (1963), he tapped Huston for the job, and so launched his parallel career as an actor. Orson Welles, whom Huston had employed in his 1956 Moby Dick among other films, invited Huston to star in his The Other Side of the Wind as Jake Hannaford, an aging film director who shares Huston’s initials and many of his personality traits. (Never finished in Welles’s lifetime, the film is slated for a believe-it-when-I-see-it release next May.) Huston’s most famous role would be that of Noah Cross, the venal and corrupt overlord of Los Angeles’s water supply, in Chinatown (1974). The film is the work of Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne, though Cross’s “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything” would seem to square with the pessimistic worldview visible in Huston’s films.

Chinatown is among the non-Huston-directed works playing in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston,” a three-week retrospective made up of a whopping forty-six programs, shown mostly on 35- and 16-mm celluloid, and including Huston’s innovative documentaries for the Army Signal Corps produced during World War II. (The program’s title refers to one of these, which deals with PTSD cases among returning veterans, among the finest documentaries ever made.) You can also see Huston, never one to turn down work, in the Italian creature-feature Tentacles (1977), or Clint Eastwood consciously impersonating someone other than Clint Eastwood for the only time in his entire career, playing Huston surrogate “John Wilson” in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990).

Eastwood’s film is based on a novel by screenwriter Peter Viertel, a thinly veiled account of his experience going on location with Huston in the Congo to shoot The African Queen (1951), one of the director’s most beloved pictures. It depicts Huston’s off-the-cuff shooting style, which may seem like the caprice of genius or, if you were the one putting up money, simply irresponsible. Eastwood’s sullen, easily distracted Huston makes a useful counterbalance to the portrait of the Prometheus Bound who appears in the book Picture, Lillian Ross’s account of every stage of the production of Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In it, Ross diligently documents every piece of hypocritical kowtowing through which a personal vision—in this case, Huston’s—is gradually whittled down by committee compromise.

Huston was born forty-three years before the events depicted in Picture, in Nevada, Missouri. His father, Walter Huston, whom he later directed to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), was then but a lowly vaudevillian. His mother, Rhea Gore Huston, may have been even more interesting—she was a newspaper sportswriter who would later work with young director-to-be Sam Fuller at the tabloid New York Evening Graphic. Knocking about the country, Huston accumulated one of those eclectic resumes particular to footloose, adventuresome young men who read too much Jack London. He entered the picture business eventually, distinguished himself as a screenwriter, and made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the film credited with establishing Humphrey Bogart as a leading man and with anticipating the loosely defined cycle of film noir to come.

Ross’s depiction of Huston as an eagle-with-clipped-wings in Picture might seem a bit much, were it not for the fact that, in due time, he proved her thesis—that he knew better than anyone else how to put his talents to work on a film. In a rare turn of events, Huston’s “late” period—comprising, let’s say, the movies he made from the age of sixty onward—is also his greatest. It is a case of the American industry catching up with a man who was long at odds with its standards, in subject matter and technique, and in the process giving him a new lease on life. This renaissance begins shortly after Andrew Sarris evaluated Huston as “coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi with every bad movie” in his The American Cinema, a judgment almost as damning in auteurist circles as Pauline Kael’s enthusiasm for him.

Huston began to sparingly integrate the handheld camerawork of his WWII documentaries into his fiction films. He tested the new license made possible in light of a weakened Production Code, putting a bare-assed Adam and Eve in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), then going the whole hog in the following year’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, his adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novella of the seething hidden life of a southern military base, with Brando as Major Weldon Penderton, a glum closet case forever wary of being betrayed by his dainty bulkiness.

Huston’s Fat City (1972), a cult item which had the benefit of a two-week run at Film Forum in 2009, has increasingly been recognized for what it is, one of the greatest films of a great decade for American movies, and the purest distillation of Huston’s career-long engagement with doomed, hubristic personal quests and pyrrhic victories. A onetime amateur lightweight boxing champion of California, Huston took his crew to the armpit of the San Joaquin Valley to capture the texture of the sour side of the sweet science. In the scenes between Stacy Keach’s washed-up middleweight and Susan Tyrrell’s slatternly barfly, Fat City becomes a terrifically funny-sad movie—a quality also evident in Huston’s robustly bleak The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wise Blood (1979).

The last-named is a return to what we may broadly call the “southern gothic” terrain of Reflections, this time working from source material by Flannery O’Conner. In Huston’s hands it becomes a rollicking cornpone farce, a film of relentless, surging energy, dragged hither and thither by Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes, a cracked veteran—shades of Let There Be Light—who comes home a self-styled prophet. To this haul we can add The Kremlin Letter (1970) and The Mackintosh Man (1973), among the finest of Cold War espionage films, both notable for their laconic, affectless tone, the latter a reunion with Paul Newman, star of Huston’s last and finest western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).

Huston plucked his source material from all over, but one overarching theme emerges before all others in his work: that of the death drive that lies coiled within (mostly masculine) ambition. This theme hardly begins with Huston, but it stems from his engagement with literary history—his Moby Dick is a key work. For nearly fifty years, Huston, in his films, told and retold the tale of the fatal, inexorable mission, a story older than Melville which, in due time, would be carried on by others. Mackintosh Man and Judge Roy Bean were respectively written by Walter Hill and John Milius, two soon-to-be directors whose work would show Huston’s influence, while another Melville, Jean-Pierre, praised The Kremlin Letter. Failure is Huston’s theme, but in his fecund run of the late 1960s and 1970s, you will find anything but.

Nick Pinkerton

“Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston,” runs December 19, 2014–January 11, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Sophie Fillières, If You Don’t, I Will, 2014, color, sound, 102 minutes. Pomme and Pierre (Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric).

THANKS TO THE VAGARIES of release schedules, sometimes a modest, intelligent movie can seem even more accomplished when it arrives in the wake of a similarly themed, lumbering white elephant. Writer-director Sophie Fillières’s fifth feature, If You Don’t, I Will, concerns the strained, often caustic interactions between a long-term couple—what the filmmaker herself has felicitously called “the more or less low-level violence of conjugality.” Unlike David Fincher’s ghastly commercial hit Gone Girl, in which the platitude “marriage is hard work” is carried out to its grimmest, most cartoonish extreme, If You Don’t, I Will pursues a more fruitful topic: exploring the ways that spouses become fiercely invested in perpetuating their own immiserating dynamic.

Though the length of their union is never specified—they’ve been together at least seven years—Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos) and Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) have long settled into a passive-aggressive push-pull. Their communication barely conceals the fury that simmers beneath each exchange; husband and wife appear incapable of not finding a slight in the most benign remark. Like most unhappy couples, they feel no shame in performing their acrimony in front of others, whether mutual friends or strangers at a party. If marriage is hard work—that is, a series of arguments and sulks resolved through unsatisfying compromises—then Pomme and Pierre seem to never be off the clock, outrageously in violation of French labor laws.

Speaking of work, the specifics of the professional lives of Pomme and Pierre, like other key details about this bobo Lyonnais couple, are parceled out in a pleasingly oblique way. Though we never see him at the office, we learn that Pierre works in some capacity at a local TV-news show owing to his habit of too eagerly insisting that one of his colleagues, weather forecaster Mellie (Joséphine de La Baume), stop by the squabbling spouses’ apartment, especially when his wife is there. Fillières’s film is well underway before we discover that Pomme is on medical leave from her managerial profession, having recently had a benign tumor removed from her brain. The twentyish son whom Pomme coddles turns out to be her child from a previous relationship—key information that isn’t bullet-pointed but transmitted in a casual, offhanded way.

In fact, the loose confidence on display throughout much of If You Don’t, I Will helps make the material, however frequently (and often enervatingly) mined, seem fresh. Although dour, Fillières’s movie is free of cynicism and bad faith, and buoyed by sly wit. That Pomme and Pierre are played by two of France’s finest actors (and frequent costars; Devos and Amalric are veterans of Arnaud Desplechin’s piquant yet compassionate ensemble-driven productions) also ensures that these scenes from a marriage aren’t unremittingly bleak. Even in Pomme and Pierre’s lowest moments, there are still flashes of tenderness, reminders that these adversaries once really liked each other and maybe still do but have forgotten how to. By film’s end, they’ve reached a fragile, touching entente, one that follows Pomme’s extended solo sojourn in the nearby woods. Need I mention that watching Devos rough it in a forest in the Rhônes-Alpes region is far more rewarding than tracking the woman’s journey undertaken by Reese Witherspoon in Wild, another gassy prestige picture?

Melissa Anderson

If You Don’t, I Will plays at Film Forum December 17–30.

Serge Bozon, Tip Top, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes.

IN HIS BREAKTHROUGH FILM LA FRANCE (2007), Serge Bozon created a singular anachronistic war movie/musical hybrid: A drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I in which soldiers intermittently break out into delirious songs that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds, the film celebrates 1960s-era pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. Tip Top, Bozon’s latest, similarly upends categories: This sui generis policier audaciously balances slapstick with a fiercely intelligent probing of the still-knotty legacy of France’s colonialist past.

Using Bill James’s 2006 mystery novel of the same name as a jumping-off point, Bozon cowrote Tip Top with his frequent collaborator Axelle Ropert (whose two features, 2009’s The Wolberg Family and 2013’s Miss and the Doctors, both exceptionally compassionate explorations of blood ties, have scandalously never received US distribution). Internal-affairs officers Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain) are summoned to the northern French town of Villeneuve to investigate the murder of an Algerian informant named Farid Benamar. The oddly matched cops—brusque Esther’s crisp teal suit contrasts sharply with reticent Sally’s oversize glasses and baggy white cable-knit pullover—are themselves surveilled by Robert Mendès (François Damiens), the local flic to whom Farid reported. Now grooming a new, younger informant, Younès (Aymen Saïdi), Robert is begrudgingly tolerated by Villeneuve’s Algerian residents, who must endure his horrible Arabic and his penchant for reading passages aloud from Are We Serious in Our Practice of Islam?

During his snooping, Robert will become aware of the highly unorthodox off-duty practices of Esther and Sally: The former is into heavy s/m, stashing a mason’s hammer under her hotel-room pillow until her beloved violinist husband (Sami Naceri) can join her, and the former is a compulsive voyeur. The bedroom behavior of this peculiar law-enforcement duo, mirrored somewhat in their dom/sub professional rapport, provides Tip Top with most of its bracing, askew humor—and allows its female leads to showcase previously underexplored talents. Huppert, a titan of French cinema best known for her performances in grave, somber works like Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), has rarely appeared in comedies (save for François Ozon’s kitsch musical misfire 8 Women from 2002). But in Bozon’s film, the actress displays perfect, if perverse, screwball timing—never more so than when single drops of blood, the result of the previous night’s rough play, slide down her nose to be caught by her darting, eager tongue. Although not as well known stateside as her costar, Kiberlain—who earlier this year fearlessly transformed Simone de Beauvoir into a living, breathing, if still formidable, mortal in Violette, Martin Provost’s intelligent biopic of Violette Leduc—expertly complements Huppert’s bumptious character with sly self-effacement.

Yet while Tip Top regards these two idiosyncratic cops with affection, Esther and Sally—both of whom, significantly, are married to Algerians—are nonetheless agents of a corrupt institution, and, by extension, a morally compromised nation. After introducing several plot twists and hatching a more than a few conspiracies, Tip Top ends abruptly, its case still unsolved. The investigation is ongoing, much like France’s uneasy reckoning with its own past crimes.

Melissa Anderson

Tip Top opens December 12 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

John Reilly and Stefan Moore, The Irish Tapes, 1974, video, black-and-white, sound, 58 minutes.

TRYING TO DEFINE the parameters of the Migrating Forms festival, I’m tempted to say that, more than any other New York fest, it imagines what cinema will look like when and if it wholly leaves behind the twentieth-century definition of “cinema.” Making such a statement, however, would ignore some essential things about MF, now in its sixth year and its second at BAMcinématek, like the importance of film history to the fest, which has established a tradition of important retrospectives—for Jean-Pierre Gorin, Glauber Rocha, and Anne Charlotte Robertson previously, and of William Greaves (Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Still a Brother, The Fight) and Rolf Forsberg this year.

So whatever Migrating Forms is exactly is hard to put a finger on, but it isn’t boring—the same might be said for the baffling work of Gabriel Abrantes. Abrantes’s thirty-two-minute Ennui, Ennui, here in one of the four dedicated shorts programs of eighteen programs overall, imagines global politics in terms of dysfunctional parent-child pairs—a husky Afghan teenager reluctantly cast as a warlord by his overbearing mother; the princess he’s meant to kidnap and her touchy-feely father; a French Libraries Without Borders volunteer and her brittle diplomat mother (Edith Scob); and Barack Obama and his “daughter,” a military drone named Hellfire Destroyer #503027. I was recently dumbstruck by Taprobana, Abrantes’s “biopic” of the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, and Ennui, Ennui is another unapologetically high-polish long short full of gross-out gags appropriate to a direct-to-DVD American Pie sequel, disarmingly tender and stunningly bratty.

Not all of Migrating Forms’ political content is so irreverent—The Irish Tapes (1974), for example, has the blunt force impact of its iconic image, a bloodied Belfast woman blinded for life by a British rubber bullet. Originally shown as a twelve-monitor installation, The Irish Tapes is the result of John Reilly and Stefan Moore’s visits to Ulster between 1971 and 1973 with a then state-of-the-art Sony Portapak video camera, the texture of its black-and-white half-inch tape adding a particular ghostly quality to footage of an IRA training camp, a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, and Catholic mothers visiting their sons in detention. Presumably because of a shared focus on prison culture, The Irish Tapes plays on the same night, Sunday December 14, as Field Visits for Chelsea Manning, an essayistic travelogue in which director Lance Wakeling narrates his visits to the periphery of the various detention centers where Army whistleblower Manning was held in Kuwait; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and Fort Meade, Maryland. Wakeling’s original drive-by footage from off-ramp America is interspersed with transcripts from Manning’s hearings, Google Maps cartography, and anecdotes referring to the history and present (inextricable, as ever) of the surrounding areas.

Wakeling gives us some indication how to interpret his findings in an early reference to “mosaic theory,” defined thusly: “disparate items of information which individually have no utility to their possessor can take on added significance when combined with other items of information.” A more compelling expression of this idea—likewise concerned with the presence of the past within the present—can be found in The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III by Heinz Emigholz, who has been making films since the early 1970s. (In the company of the artists presenting new work here, this makes him downright venerable—Abrantes was born in 1984, and Wakeling is only a few years older.) Beginning with sculptor Reinhold Begas’s 1901 Prometheus, read as an allegory for the self-image of Germany under Wilhelm II, then shuttling to Rome’s Pantheon, Emigholz traces the interleaving histories of modernist architecture and twentieth-century political catastrophe, photographing buildings by Viktor Sulčič, Eladio Dieste, and Luis Barragán, while pursuing a wending route from Normandy to South America to Saipan, where Fat Man and Little Boy were loaded for delivery to the Empire of Japan. All the while, Emigholz elaborates and frustrates the elusive connection between what one US veteran, quoted in on-screen text, describes as “that indescribable cleanliness which one feels with bombs away” and a new cleanliness of design.

Heinz Emigholz, The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III, 2013, color, sound, 108 minutes.

If it’s not the bomb, then it’s the Internet that will bring us together. I did not have the opportunity to preview Mario Pfeifer’s Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear, though the title encapsulates the rapture/horror at the imminent singularity evident in many of the works here. Wakeling, unable to purchase an analog map in a gas station, muses on the “transition of physical markers to digital coordinates,” while Jacob Ciocci’s The Urgency begins with the words “DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THEIR LIVES WRECKED BY COMPUTERS, THE INTERNET, OR SOCIAL MEDIA.” If Ciocci is actually convinced that we’re locked in a digital dance of death, he seems to find the beat quite catchy—the video is an apoplectic montage of YouTube nuggets, message board–trawling finds, and shopworn memes, set to a mash-up sound track by Ciocci’s band, Extreme Animals. Cory Arcangel has generally gravitated toward an unapologetic gee-whiz tech-utopian line, and I can detect no satirical intent in his Freshbuzz (www.subway.com), a sixty-minute screenshot in which Arcangel wields his cursor like a torch to explore the catacombs of the Subway restaurant website (and ancillary brand tie-ins on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.), without yielding significantly more interesting results than a viewer could get spending an hour of his own time. A more abrasive approach appears in the refrain image of Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze—a washing machine spinning itself into overdrive self-destruction, evoking center-will-not-hold entropy—which is broken up with “verses” of passed-out-at-party pics, crushing fetish videos, and moshing Juggalos. Speaking to this publication before a solo exhibition of his work at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis earlier this year, Rafman called Mainsqueeze “beautiful and ironic, or postironic,” that irony evident perhaps in his counterpoising of the hoary clichés of the Tumblr-puke aesthetic (ca. 2012 “seapunk” dolphins, Grimes) with certain staples of Renaissance painting.

Rafman is Montreal-based, and Mainsqueeze plays as part of a program of Canadian work, alongside Jeremy Shaw’s Quickeners, which also, after a fashion, addresses what Web 2.0 hath wrought, but with a quite original sci-fi vintage tack. Quickeners sets its scene in a future where so-called Quantum Humans are all connected to a network called the Hive and have attained a sort of rational enlightenment. It is designed to appear as a documentary on an atavistic outbreak of illogical religious ecstasy in Area 23, “a deserted and derelict region once known in the late age of human civilization as the Americas,” per the public school–accent voice of an English narrator. This is imagined through repurposing footage from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary on a snake-handling Pentecostal church in West Virginia, Holy Ghost People, cutting the dialogue into an indistinguishable garble that sounds like hillbilly patois, while providing subtitles that tell his original story.

I like Shaw’s film, which reconfirms prejudices about intractable American religiosity while seeming to celebrate it, although it fits within a certain tendency in contemporary art which deems only the most extreme varieties of religious experience as suitable for consideration. An interesting contrast is provided by a sidebar devoted to the work of eighty-nine-year-old Rolf Forsberg, a son of Chicago best known for the sponsored, or “industrial,” films that he made for various Christian organizations. The program is the same four-film selection that played the UCLA Film & Television Archive last year on the occasion of Forsberg’s Parable being selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Commissioned by the Protestant Council of the City of New York for the Protestant and Orthodox Center at the 1964 World’s Fair, the silent-save-for-music Parable tells the story of Christ through the misadventures of a sort-of Pierrot clown in a traveling circus. Forsberg is drawn to such high-concept premises: His Ark (1970), set in a thoroughly despoiled post–environmental apocalypse future, follows one man who has made it his life’s mission to re-create the before-the-fall world in a pond in a controlled greenhouse environment—a modern Noah, in a kind of Walden Terrarium. Before arriving at a genuinely paining climax, Ark offers a design for living in the physical world once all of humanity has been raptured into the cloud-life.

Nick Pinkerton

“Migrating Forms” is curated by Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry and runs Wednesday, December 10–Thursday, December 18 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

Robert Altman, 3 Women, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Millie Lammoreaux and Pinky Rose (Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek).

DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALTMAN during the New Hollywood paragon’s most fertile decade, 3 Women (1977) stars two of the greatest, most emblematic actresses of 1970s American cinema: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. This shape-shifting movie, which explores self-delusion, intense attachment, and identity-merging, originated in a dream Altman had and proceeds with a particular oneiric logic. The film is rich in brilliant oddities and juxtapositions, never more so than when Duvall and Spacek are encompassed in the same frame.

3 Women looks back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and anticipates David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001); all three movies revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. In Altman’s film, childlike Pinky (Spacek), a new arrival to Southern California, becomes utterly transfixed by Millie (Duvall), the garrulous woman who’s assigned to train her on the basics of hydrotherapy at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatrics Center. These coworkers soon become roommates at the Purple Sage Apartments, Pinky dazzled by Millie’s professed sophisticated taste, largely shaped by McCall’s magazine. Willfully ignoring the fact that most people find her to be a nattering, desperate fool, Millie frequently upbraids her simple-minded, pigtailed devotee, whose dedication seems to grow only stronger with each rebuke. “You’re the most perfect person I ever met,” Pinky gushes to Millie, who, in between cigarette puffs, smiles wide and says, “Gee, thanks,” genuinely flattered that someone has echoed her own long-held self-assessment.

After a near-deadly incident that occurs well into the film’s second half, the power balance between Pinky and Millie is inverted, the latter now the doting caretaker of the former, who expresses her gratitude through passive-aggressive outbursts and petty tyrannies—behavior clearly modeled on that of her one-time idol. The epilogue reveals an even more profound transformation of identities, with Pinky, Millie, and the third woman of the title, Willie (Janice Rule), a peripheral though ultimately crucial character who paints mystical, Boschian murals, settling into either a perverse family unit or a separatist desert herland commune—or both.

Or neither. “I just had the most wonderful dream,” Willie says in the movie’s closing minutes, suggesting that maybe everything that has transpired in 3 Women is limited to her midafternoon doze. However open to interpretation 3 Women may be, the film deepens in meaning when considering the facts of its production and its principals. The movie is the sixth of seven Duvall made with Altman, who cast her in her screen debut, 1970’s Brewster McCloud. (Their final project together, the 1980 musical flop Popeye, was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall’s best-known vehicle.) The film marks Spacek’s only collaboration with the director (who died in 2006) and, most likely, her sole film with Duvall, who hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2002. Though the actresses possess unconventional beauty, they are physically dissimilar—yet Duvall/Millie and Spacek/Pinky make perfect doppelgängers. Both performers were born in 1949 in Texas, Duvall in Houston and Spacek in Quitman, cities that also serve as the respective hometowns of Millie and Pinky. Their Lone Star State drawls intact, the actresses are reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.

Melissa Anderson

3 Women screens December 17 and 20 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the series “Robert Altman,” which runs through January 17, 2015.