Monday, March 23, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—3 Women (1977) ***½

PG, 124 min.
Director/Writer: Robert Altman
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell, Sierra Pechuer, Craig Richard Nelson

Robert Altman’s “3 Women” has been referred to as his tribute to the films of Ingmar Bergman. It appropriates Bergman’s style of connecting two characters in the intimate webs of each other in the same way as films like “Persona”. Altman’s take is distinctly American, with its California desert location and its testosterone-driven male supporting characters. This meshing of geographical styles results in a David Lynchian feel to the material, along the lines of “Mulholland Dr.” It embraces trace horror elements that can also be found in both Bergman and Lynch’s works. It is one of the more unique films from this director/auteur that is a step away from his normal fare and yet somehow still distinctly Altman-esque.

We meet a young girl, Pinky Rose. She’s an obvious shy oddball. Sissy Spacek was still spinning off her “Carrie” vibe when Altman cast her. She’s starting a new job at rehabilitation spa. A veteran worker, Millie, is assigned to train her. Millie, as played by Altman regular Shelley Duvall, seems to be much more grounded at first, but it eventually becomes apparent that she is just as much of an oddball as Pinky. The two are destined for each other.

Pinky worships Millie, who is a 180-degree contrast to Pinky’s quiet timidity. Millie talks incessantly and seems to dominate life. This is what she wishes to believe. In reality, most of the people she works with and who live in her apartment complex are either annoyed by her or pay no attention to her whatsoever. Pinky moves in with Millie and the two become nearly inseparable. Somehow they seem to complete each other. Millie introduces Pinky to some friends at a gun club located out in the desert. The couple who run it are Edgar and Willie Hart. He is the essence of male testosterone. She is the third woman of the film’s title. She doesn’t say much. She’s an artist and the secret puppet master of all.

Willie is no literal puppet master, but her art depicts the three women as they are and by the end of their journey we learn how interchangeable that makes them. Willie paints murals in pools that all depict the same image. Altman’s camera lingers on the images of her paintings during the opening credits and throughout the film in transitional moments. At first their significance is unclear, but as the story evolves they make more sense. One of the creatures she paints appears to be the mother of the other two. They are female beasts who tear at each other and yet seem to have some symbiotic dependence on each other. Altman’s camera considers both their horror and their beauty.

These are the same characteristics his film considers about the three women who dominate it. All other characters are insignificant. When Pinky ends up in a coma, Millie finds her parents, who the audience has been left to believe may be a fabrication of Pinky’s imagination. Although they are indeed real just as they are described by Pinky; when she regains consciousness, she claims they are strangers to her. Even Edgar is insignificant in the end. He is a tool tossed around by the women to imbue them with importance to one another, but his importance ends there. These three women are all there really is in this strange dreamlike world Alltman creates.

One point where Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” draws comparisons to this movie lies within the fact that after Pinky’s coma, she switches places with Millie in terms of relationship dominance. In much the same way the Naomi Watts and Laura Harring characters may or may not be different versions of each other in one or the other’s dream in Lynch’s movie, Pinky and Millie are at once two different women and the one-in-the-same. Even Willie’s role in their relationship seems to be habitable by one or the other of the women at different times during the story.

Although “3 Women” is by far one of the strangest of Altman’s career, it begs the question often asked of a movie about women written by a man. How does he write women so well? Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good As It Gets” claimed he thought of a man and then took away all reason and accountability. While reason may need serious contemplation here, there is most certainly a sense of accountability in these women. They are accountable to no one else but each other, which might just be the best insight a man has ever had into women.

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