Film-Forward Review: [3 WOMEN]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Directed, Produced & Written by: Robert Altman.
Director of Photography: Chuck Rosher.
Edited by: Dennis Hill.
Music by: Gerald Busby.
Released by: Criterion.
Country of Origin: USA. 124 min. Rated: PG.
With: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek & Janice Rule.
DVD Features: Commentary by: Robert Altman. Gallery. Trailers & TV spots. New high-definition digital transfer.

3 Women - literally dreamed up by Robert Altman as his wife lay in a hospital extremely sick - is the epitome of an art film. While it could be argued that most of the director’s work falls under that term, this 1977 film all but proclaims itself an example of such by actually featuring mural paintings as a visual motif. Emblematic of the “New Hollywood” period in the late 1960s and ‘70s, when auteur-driven films with deeply philosophical ideas were successfully produced, 3 Women is distinct from the techniques and style of Altman’s most well-known movies.

It is devoid of his signature jittery hand-held camera movements and satiric slant. In spite of some identifiably Altmanesque touches (such as a detached, razor-sharp attention to detail, including close-ups on seemingly irrelevant minutiae; often hilarious character dialogue that, if not overlapping, is heard clearly off-screen; and subtle performances in support of a vaguely-articulated meaning), the movie is not ambiguous in the manner usually associated with the filmmaker. Instead of a great number of possible explanations for events that occur as the plot unfolds, 3 Women is enigmatic, with a sense of there being only one specific reason for what happens, which is, coincidentally, impenetrable. The story becomes nonsensical, with an explicit hallucinatory quality toward the end.

The coherent part of the narrative relates how Pinky (Spacek, depicting a flirty knowingness even when her character is supposedly naïve) begins work at a California retirement spa, bonding with Millie (Duvall, using her voice and conversational tone to great annoyance). Another orderly, Millie is seemingly unaware that everyone - including the viewer, since Millie’s need for attention is insufferably voracious - dislikes her. Everyone except Pinky, who - just as lonely as her friend - becomes obsessed with her, gradually adopting Millie’s identity. This process speeds up when the women become roommates at an apartment complex owned by a couple, Edgar (Robert Fortier) and the third woman of the film’s title, Willie, a painter (an underwritten estranged witch-type character played by Rule). Her murals depict huge phalluses and sexual triangles, providing visual commentary on the movie’s sexual developments.

Despite some remarkable elements, the film does not add up to much, perhaps constituting Altman’s impressionistic rendering of his feelings of abandonment when faced with his wife’s mortality. Its influences (such as 1966’s Persona) are evident, and its impact (2001’s Mulholland Dr., and even 1999’s The Sixth Sense) is appreciable.

DVD Extras: The included ads for the film are notable, if only to see how a major studio went about attempting to market such a blatantly noncommercial film (in a word: badly). The major bonus, is, of course, Altman’s commentary track, on which he explains how in his dream that inspired this film, he only dreamed the title and that it would star Duvall and Spacek. Conceding it only gets more confusing as it goes along, he likens the film’s intended effect to that of a painting – citing its color design of yellows and pinks, which affect its mood. Altman also discusses Busby’s atonal music score as having that same mood-setting aspect without determining viewers’ reactions completely, describing the music as vaguely disorienting and unsettling.

Also fascinating is his metaphorical explication of the film as his concept of “the last male” - a kind of primitive fear that, since women seem to conspire against men behind their backs (as well as against each other), they will therefore invariably try to get rid of man, believing they are better off without him but actually, in effect, putting an end to civilization. This take on the film is almost self-evident when one considers the ending, but easy to overlook on an initial viewing, and not helped by the fact that most of the criticism describes the movie as “feminist.” Altman - perhaps unwittingly - positions it within a whole other framework, with an explanation that forces questions as to his subconscious reasons for making the film in the way he did.

Additionally, some of the filmmaker’s apparently off-the-cuff remarks are hysterical, such as when he compares Millie’s do-anything-to-fit-in nature to the characteristics of a Republican. Furthermore, Altman’s contention that films are ruined by too much acting - while undoubtedly deadly serious - just comes off as funny. Toward the end of the film, Altman comments on a specific plot point, suggesting that if it had been different, the film would have made no sense, to which the viewer might want to respond: “Is he kidding?” Reymond Levy
July 5, 2004



Archive of Previous Reviews, 180 Thompson Street, New York, NY 10012 - Contact us