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3 Women
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman
Stars: Shelley Duvall (Millie Lammoreaux), Sissy Spacek (Pinky Rose), Janice Rule (Willie Hart), Robert Fortier (Edgar Hart), Ruth Nelson (Mrs. Rose), John Cromwell (Mr. Rose), Sierra Pecheur (Ms. Bunweil), Craig Richard Nelson (Dr. Maas), Maysie Hoy (Doris), Belita Moreno (Alcira)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1977
Country: U.S.
3 Women DVD
Shelley Duvall and Sissy SpacekAfter he hit what many consider to be his career peak in the mid-1970s with the masterful ensemble drama Nashville (1975), Robert Altman entered a strange period of experimentation that would largely define his career in the late 1970s and unfortunately lead into his decline in the early 1980s. In the grander scheme of things, it is ironic that Altman was at his most experimental just as Hollywood was fully embracing the blockbuster formula spawned by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Altman was amazingly prolific during the 1970s, turning out a dozen feature films in a span of 10 years, and one wonders if the major studios continued funding his increasingly abstract and experimental films only because they were hoping for another unexpected hit ala M*A*S*H (1970), his subversive war comedy that was an unexpected box office success during one of Hollywood’s most economically desperate eras.

Altman’s brief experimental phase, which culminated with 1979’s glacial, abstract sci-fi head-scratcher Quintet, kicked off in 1977 with 3 Women, an absorbing, if despondent, tale of familial disintegration and the twisted world of relationship power dynamics. It relies less on the construct of a linear, causal narrative than it does on the power of recognizable human emotions embedded within the logic of symbols and metaphors. You can spend all day trying to fit the pieces of the story together to figure out “what happens” and “why” it happens and still be no closer to the film’s true meaning. 3 Women is often described as dreamlike because of its slightly hazy, sometimes surreal imagery, but that description is better suited to the logic of its story, in which personalities shift and clash without “rational” explanation.

Like the female characters in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), the three women of the title are best viewed as three faces of a single person. In various ways, they are all connected, sometimes reflecting each other and other times refracting and fragmenting those connections (notice how many times they are seen in panes of double glass, thus creating multiple reflections). They not so much individual, psychologically defined characters as they are allegories for various faces of the human condition.

The film’s central relationship is between Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Millie, who fancies herself a social sophisticate, works at a day spa for the elderly in a remote, dusty southern California town. The almost childlike Pinky is the new girl at work, and she immediately latches onto Millie, blindly creating a dependent power dynamic between them. Millie accepts the socially awkward Pinky into her life and eventually into her one-bedroom apartment as her roommate.

Although they seem polar opposites—Millie is chipper and self-assured while Pinky is quiet and shy—they are, in fact, very much the same, particularly in their isolation from others. Millie chatters on to anyone and everyone, but it is quickly evident that no one wants to listen to her banal ruminations on life. Always dressed in sunny shades of yellow (as is her apartment and her boxy little car), Millie is so absorbed in the worldly discourse of her fashion magazines that she is almost frighteningly unaware of just how alone she is. The stark difference between the world in which she lives and her perception of it is humorously summarized in her statement “I’m known for my dinner parties,” which consist entirely of cheap, processed foods like pigs in a blanket, pudding cups, and cheese whiz. Pinky accepts everything Millie says and does without question, thus illustrating how desperate she is for companionship.

The third woman of the title is Willie Hart (Janice Rule), who exists largely on the margins of the film. She is married to Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier), a sorry sack of would-be machismo who owns a dilapidated bar in a run-down former amusement park called “Dodge City” (a literal incarnation of the death of the promise of the West and all the Manifest Destiny baggage that came along with it). Willie, who is pregnant and silent for most of the film, spends her time painting large murals that depict three angry reptilian women. These murals become one the film’s primary structuring devices, with Altman cutting to them as transitions between scenes or as punctuation to major events.

The first half of the film is quite straightforward, dramatically and narratively. Altman’s insistent focus on the dry desert landscape and the depressing isolation of everything and everyone gives the film’s opening passages a fuzzy bleakness, but it is easy enough to get wrapped up in the sad relationship between Millie and Pinky, which seems destined for disaster. The film makes an abrupt shift when Pinky has an “accident” and ends up in a coma. At this point, identity becomes fully fluid as Pinky emerges from her coma a completely different person, which results in a rapid shift in the power dynamics of her relationship with Millie. This, of course, entails Millie’s personality undergoing a radical shift, as well. Altman underscores the connections with a series of murky, fluid montages that recall Bergman’s juxtaposing of female faces in Persona (1966).

3 Women is the kind of film that carries a great deal of profundity for those willing to look for it. Particularly for those viewers who know Altman’s films and the themes that define them, it is a beautifully perplexing, but ultimately recognizable work. Altman’s despondent view of familial relations is at its most powerful here, even though it is conveyed in abstract, rather than direct terms. It is also a crucial exploration of gender dynamics, as it undermines the idea that female power will somehow improve the world. Instead, Altman suggests in the film’s haunting final shots that patriarchal abuses of power will forever be replicated even in the absence of men. For him, these abuses are inherent to humanity and have no particular gender bias. In 3 Women, violence of varying sorts is enacted by men against women, women against women, and women against men. It is the universal trait that connects all of humanity in a zero-sum game.

3 Women Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements Audio commentary by writer/director Robert Altman
Stills gallery
Two theatrical trailers
TV spots
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
SRP$39.95
Release DateApril 20, 2004

VIDEO
3 Women is beautifully presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a new high-definition anamorphic transfer taken from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original negative. As with all of Altman’s ’Scope films, 3 Women must absolutely be viewed in its intended aspect ratio; panning and scanning destroys Altman’s excellent and meaningful compositions. The film’s slightly soft-focus cinematography, which consists mostly of washed out earth tones with occasional splashes of bright yellow, purple, and blue, is very well rendered. The image is almost entirely free of any nicks or blemishes thanks to the excellent digital restoration work.

AUDIO
The digitally restored monaural soundtrack works quite well in presenting Gerald Busby’s often audacious atonal music score, which at times sounds like something from a European horror movie.

SUPPLEMENTS
I’ve listened to quite a few of Robert Altman’s DVD commentaries, and I have to say that this is one of his best. Although he doesn’t often refer specifically to the scene on screen in his comments, it is definitely one of his most consistently engaging and intriguing yak tracks. Altman is clearly a free association thinker, and his commentary ranges all across the board. He has some interesting things to say about 3 Women, and thankfully he never tries to “explain” its mysteries, although he does give you plenty to chew on. In addition to Altman’s commentary, this disc contains a thick set of galleries containing movie stills, publicity shots, and behind-the-scenes photos, including a dozen or so of the recently deceased artist Bodhi Wind painting those strange murals. The supplements are rounded out by two theatrical trailers and two TV spots.

Overall Rating: (4)

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and 20th Century-Fox Film Corp.


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