3 Women

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Some films just don’t make sense. Some films have more to do with how they are made than an exact opinion on what they are trying to depict. Some films reach people by creating a unique viewing experience rather than directly imparting wisdom. Robert Altman’s 1977 film, 3 Women, is all of these things, which make it as difficult as it is great.

One can feel the vibrations of other films in 3 Women, most specifically Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and (even though it was made later) David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Just keeping these films in mind helps one seem to understand 3 Women. Of course, if you are familiar with those films, you know that they are both so acclaimed because they can’t really be understood. They all play like dreams on some level, so untangling them is an ultimately frustrating enterprise, but there’s a lot to unpack along the way.

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Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) is a young girl who just moved to California from Texas. She takes a job at an rehabilitation center and becomes fascinated with another girl who works there, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelly Duval). We get to know both of them gradually for the first half of the film. We see that Millie is somewhat delusional, talking to everyone as if they are friends when really she has none. She is constantly concerned with her appearance and presentation, talking about the color scheme of her apartment, throwing dinner parties, and going on dates which never really happen. The only person who has any interest in her is Pinky, but Millie doesn’t want to associate with the childish and naive Pinky. But she’s the only one she has.

There is another woman. Willie Hart (Janice Rule) is an artist and the owner of the apartment building where Millie and later Pinky as well live. She composes strange and powerful murals, the only things competing with Millie for Pinky’s attention. Whenever Pinky encounters the mysterious Willie, who only paints and seldom speaks, she seems magnetically drawn to her and her art. The murals themselves occupy many spaces in the characters’ environments, but most notably on the bottom of the swimming pool in the apartment building. They are of weird reptilian figures bent and contorted in strange ways.

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As in Persona and Mulholland Drive, there is a break in the middle of 3 Women. As Pinky grows more and more entranced by Millie, she becomes more and more resentful of the attention. She brings Willie’s husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier), back home and Pinky is jealous and horrified. She falls into the swimming pool and is left in a coma. Afterwards, things just become more and more strange. Pinky wakes up and seems to become Millie, or rather, a “better” version of Millie that Millie wishes she was. People genuinely seem to like Pinky, whereas they only pretended to like Millie. Millie becomes more loyal to Pinky after the accident which she probably feels guilty for, while Pinky seems to outgrow her. Things only get more confusing from there, as the three women’s identities merge, shift, and combine. The film also takes on a strange inception type of thing, where if the film is thought of as a dream it does a complete 180 several times.

I don’t really know what the film is trying to say about identity and female relationships, or even if it is trying to get across a specific point in particular. I do know that the film creates such a specific feel and environment that it was easy to loose myself in it and not necessarily get hung up on what the film means. As a person who likes to analyze films and figure out what they are about, this is sort of hard to accept. Somewhere in the second half, by the time it was clear that the film was switching realities without giving the audience any warning, I was very frustrated. Why was it significant that these women were doing these things? What did Altman want to say about women or feminism in this movie? I have no idea at all, but as a filmic recreation of a dream (which is reportedly how Altman came to the idea of the film), there are hardly any better examples than 3 Women.

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I haven’t seen a lot of Altman films, only M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In those films, I was struck by how completely Altman created a community. 3 Women is no different. Through a tight control over the color scheme (pastel purples, blues, and yellows), a limited use of different desert locations (there are only about three places the characters go), and consistent visual motifs (the murals, sand, swimming pools and water), he builds an isolated world. There are not a lot of characters in this movie, but they all inhabit the world naturally. In short, 3 Women creates an isolated California town that feels like the stuff of dreams, strange enough to be unreal but realistic enough to be believable. The atonal flute score by Gerald Busby greatly enhances the dreamlike feel and the uniqueness of the film as well.

Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t reviewing films. 3 Women is one of the movies, that while reviewing, I recognize the futility of what I’m trying to do with this blog. There are some movies that I want to talk about, and 3 Women definitely is one of them. It’s hard to do that in the format of a review, especially after seeing it only once. There are some movies, that after they are over, I just want to play them again. 3 Women is one of those, and it’s that feeling I had after the end that leads me to recommend it more than anything else.

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“You’re the most perfect person I’ve met.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

AV Club article
Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review

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