Monday, August 19, 2013
Criterion #230: 3 Women
I wanted to write a great review of 3 Women. I wanted to write something full of insight that located this 1977 film (late in Robert Altman's run of 1970's classics) among not only Altman's best but among the greatest American films of the decade. 3 Women may, in fact, be worthy of that description. But one viewing isn't enough. Robert Altman's 1977 3 Women, which the director conceived in a dream, is a knotty work often lacking in internal logic which still manages to leave an indelible impression. It isn't surprising that after 3 Women Altman's career began a slide that didn't stop until the early 1990's. I don't know what the film's budget was (it was released by 20th Century Fox), but today it's impossible to imagine a studio giving a director two hundred bucks to make something as intimate and oblique as 3 Women.
California, abutting the desert: Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is fresh from Texas and has a job at a senior citizens' spa where her only duties seem to consist of leading patrons around the pool and into the hot tubs. Pinky attaches herself to Milly (Shelley Duvall), a more experienced employee whose empty personal life is only gradually revealed. The two become roommates at an apartment complex owned by Edgar (Robert Fortier) and his pregnant wife Willie (Janice Rule, the third woman of the title), whose obsessive paintings of women at the mercy of men seem to unlock something bizarre within the world of the film. It is difficult to understand now what an unsettling presence the young Sissy Spacek must have been to 1970's audiences. Spacek totally commits to the role of Pinky but also (just as in Badlands) seems completely malleable, which serves the film well during a later section when Pinky seems to hijack another personality. As good as Spacek is though, Shelley Duvall is even better and 3 Women may be the role of her career. Duvall won a Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance, and in the current thin climate of great roles for women it is quite possible she would have been nominated for an Oscar. Millie is, within the film's dream logic, trying on a personality just as much as Pinky is though Millie is much more tone deaf as to how she is perceived. I'm not sure that 3 Women was meant to stand up to the sort of obsessive picking apart that films of today undergo, but the way that Millie talks constantly to her colleagues and neighbors and is almost completely ignored feels like a kind of clue that Altman doesn't mean all of this to be taken literally and maybe also a clue that he's admitting he doesn't understand women very much at all.
I could continue to describe the plot of 3 Women, which also includes an aborted dinner party, a shooting range, and a hospital visit, but that wouldn't do the experience of it justice. By then end I think I choose to take Altman at his word, that Pinky, Millie, and Willie are as we find them but that one of them (or perhaps all of them) dare to imagine something different no matter how scary it seems. That may be too reductive a reading of a film that it's director may not even have understood, but it is a place to start. 3 Women contains mysteries and is very much a product of a era when personality felt like a construct and film felt like a direct line to the best of human possibility.