Robert Altman's 3 Women really made a big impression on me the first time I saw it. I think I was in college at the time, a punk kid excited about film. I liked Robert Altman a lot because of Nashville which was like nothing I had seen before. So I was really prepared to like 3 Women too.
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Now, a little older and with hindsight, the film doesn't seem as great as it once did. Partly that's because I've subsequently seen Ingmar Bergman's Persona and picked up on all the similarities (Persona was released in 1966 and 3 Women more than ten years later in 1977). What, at first, seemed groundbreaking and original now seems to owe something to Bergman.
Altman claims the idea for the movie (along with the title) came to him in a dream, but 3 Women and Persona are clearly related and Altman had obviously seen the critically acclaimed Swedish film.
Structurally, the two movies are similar: both dabble with the idea of personality transference and both are obviously concerned with women's issues.
I won't get into a debate about which one's better; I only mean to point out that Bergman was there first.
Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule are the titular three women. Duvall plays Millie Lammoreaux and Spacek plays Pinky Rose. Pinky arrives in Desert Springs, Californiaa dusty and desolate localeand gets a job at a convalescent spa. It is here that she meets Milliea therapist who walks elderly patients around a heated pooland the two quickly become roommates.
Millie lives at the Purple Sage, a singles apartment complex owned by Willie (Janice Rule) and Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier). The Hart's also own a bar in "Dodge City"a mock western town where Millie frequently hangs out.
Willie is older than the other two, pregnant, an enigmatic figure who rarely speaks. She's often seen in straw hat and peasant-looking dress, painting strange murals, where male and female amphibious-like creatures appear to be engaged in some kind of struggle. These frescoes cover the bottom of the pool at the apartment complex and Altman frequently cuts to them.
Millie considers herself a kind of social butterfly, but is mostly ignoredor poked fun atby her co-workers and the other singles in the complex ("Don't look now, but it's thoroughly modern Millie").
The child-like Pinky, however, looks up to her ("You're the most perfect person Ive ever met") and even tries to emulate her, although her natural awkwardness gets in the way.
When Millie plans a dinner party, Pinky spills one of six shrimp cocktails on her dress, irritating Millie to no end ("Now the table won't be even"). Of course no one shows up.
Millie intimates that Pinky probably scared them away and storms off, only later to return with Edgar, who is not above sleeping around even though his wife is pregnant. Pinky is shocked, but Millie retorts: "What do you know about anything?"
And that's when the plot takes an unexpected dramatic turn. Pinky wanders out on the apartment's balcony in her nightclothes and falls into the pool in what appears to be a suicide attempt. She's rushed to the hospital where she lies, comatose, for days, but eventually recovers.
It should come as no surprise to Altman fans that her recovery is as strange as the event that preceded it. I've already noted the idea of personality transference, so I'll just leave it at that.
3 Women is often described as dreamlike. It has a raw, creepy power that owes a lot to the moody Gerald Busby score (this was Busby's only music credit according to IMDb.com).
I also really like the off-kilter look of the film. Altman and cinematographer Chuck Rosher (who also shot Altman's A Wedding) overexpose exterior shots and underexpose interior ones. And it's interesting to note that characters are color-coded: Millie is often dressed in yellow, her car and apartment are yellow; and Pinky's color (as her name implies) is pink.
The performances are meticulously first-rate: Duvall shared the 1977 Best Actress award at Cannes with Monique Mercure and Spacek won the New York Film Critics Supporting Actress award. And although she hardly speaks, Janice Rulewho pretty much dropped acting to pursue a career as a psychoanalystmanages to convey a strong presence.
What is Altman saying with this film? I've thought about it a lot (because the movie has the ability to stick in your head) and I think the movie's tagline ("1 woman became 2 / 2 women became 3 / 3 women became 1") offers a clue.
First of all, Altman doesn't spell out the word "three" in the title; he leaves it as a number. (As an aside: it was Roger Ebert who pointed out that Altman very specifically chose to use an ampersand in the title "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" verses the word "and" because it de-emphasizes the idea that they were a couple and plays up the notion that they're business partners.)
Insofar as characters are important to story, 3 is really the perfect number and occurs throughout literature. Why three? Well, simply put, four is too many and two is too few. Three occurs time and again. Trust me (or, better yet, trust the Coen brothers: the terrific O Brother, Where Art Thou? is merely a more recent example of a trio of characters).
Three makes for a tight unit and this gets to the movie's feminist theme (reinforced by the last part of the tagline: "3 women became 1").
Throughout 3 Women, men are portrayed in a negative light. Edgar's only claim to fame was that he was once Hugh O'Brian's stunt double. He doesn't appear to help Willie out much; he's often seen horsing around Dodge City, looting the bar for spare change, drinking (popular male pastime), or shooting at targetsguns being a male symbol.
Bottom line: he's not needed. The women can function without him and they're probably better off.
By film's end something very odd has happened. The three women have, in a sense, become onea family of sorts. And men no longer fit in the picture.
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