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Put together a top-shelf Raymond Carver story and the last two reels of 2001 and you have a dim idea of the unique genius of Altman's 1977 masterpiece, probably the most original movie ever made within the studio system. Shelley Duvall is a practiced flirt and would-be social butterfly, oblivious to the total failure of her Donna Reed mystique, and Sissy Spacek is the childlike tag-along who idolizes her. That's all I'll say about the story, which makes turns you couldn't have guessed at in ways that can't be summarized. Humane, funny, staggeringly strange and deeply creepy, THREE WOMEN defines certain social strata and modes of interaction that you've never seen in a movie before or since--and then goes out on a mystical limb that makes the last third of APOCALYPSE NOW look prosaic. With all due respect to NASHVILLE, MCCABE and many others, Altman never made a better film.
Altman made a lot of films that are obscure and deserve to remain so
("Quintet"), but he also made a lot of films that are obscure but
deserve to be seen, and "3 Women" is one of those. It's one of the most
fascinating films Altman created, and that's really saying something
from a director who was able to make even his bad films fascinating.
Altman claimed that "3 Women" was inspired by a dream he had while his wife was lying ill in a hospital, and the film does indeed work on its audience the way a dream does. It resists literal interpretation, and will probably frustrate any viewer who insists upon tidiness in their movies. It communicates its messages instead through pervasive imagery and tone -- it's not "about" something as much as it's about making you FEEL something, and it does that expertly. This movie will stick in your mind and haunt you long after you've seen it.
If I were forced to explain the film's plot, it would go something like this: Shelley Duvall plays Millie, a rather foolish woman who works in a geriatric physical therapy center, and whose roommate has just moved out to live with her boyfriend. Sissy Spacek plays Pinkie, newly hired at the center and put under Millie's direction. Millie is a pathetic character -- she yammers on endlessly about ridiculously trivial things (like how to make tuna melts) and doesn't realize that everyone around her either ignores her or makes fun of her. But Pinkie nevertheless becomes enamored of her and moves in with her. The third woman of the title is Willie, a reclusive artist who owns both the apartment complex in which Millie and Pinkie live, and a saloon that resembles something from a ghost town. She paints murals of strange-looking mythological creatures engaged in violent and sexual acts. These images recur throughout the film, as do images of water. Everything up to this point in the movie is dealt with in a fairly straightforward manner. But then Pinkie has an accident, and when she wakes up, she's become a different person, causing Millie's hold on reality, already tenuous, to unravel. At this point, the film becomes reminiscent of films like "Persona" and "Mulholland Drive," in which seemingly separate female characters merge into different facets of one female personality.
The ending is creepy and chilling in ways that are hard to define. The whole film has violent undertones -- the lone male character in the film is a lout and vaguely predatory; all of the women at various moments seem to be holding back a barely suppressed rage. Altman uses his camera in his characteristically expert manner to shape our perceptions about what we are seeing, and he uses other parts of his mise-en-scene, like color (Millie's favorite colors are yellow and purple, and look for them in the art direction), to bring a slightly surreal quality to even the most mundane of locations.
I've always thought that Shelley Duvall was an underrated actress, and she gives one of her best performances as Millie (and almost looks pretty for a change). Sissy Spacek is tremendous as well, and shows a remarkable range as Pinkie. Both of these actresses do wonderful things with tough roles, and even if we sometimes feel like we're on uneven footing because of the movie's enigmatic nature, the actresses are so assured in their parts that we can rely on them to guide us through it.
Altman directed a quartet of "dream" films that all revolve around the psychological and emotional crises of women: "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969); "Images" (1972); "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982); and "3 Women." I've not seen "That Cold Day..", but of the other three, though all of them have qualities to recommend them, "3 Women" is easily the best.
I've wanted to see Robert Altman's "3 Women"(1977) for long time and
finally saw it last night. The references to one of my all time
favorites, Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" are obvious: two young women, the
main characters (seemingly meek, childlike Pinky and outgoing and
seemingly popular but in reality a sad loser Millie seem almost to
exchange identities, or to become one in a desperate search for
connection and sense of belonging but "3 Women" is memorable and
haunting on its own terms. It makes you think long time after it's
over. As a matter of fact, I am still thinking about it. I think that
it is an incredible work of an extraordinary master. As always in his
best films, Robert Altman is terrific - innovative, iconoclastic,
free-spirited, unconventional, and truly original. He is a great
humanist who sees through his characters but never makes fun of them
and he understands them. Under his directing, Shelly Duvall and Sissy
Spacec gave two astonishing performances. They were both great but
Duvall was a revelation. She adapted the loquacious Millie's
personality and become the character. Altman had discovered Duvall at
one of the malls in Texas where she was selling cosmetics and given her
roles in his six films. I want also to mention the eerie music, the
dreamy and uneasy atmosphere of something sinister ready to happen, the
scary and mesmerizing murals on the bottom of the pool that the third
woman, silent and mysterious, tired and wise Willie (Janice Rule) was
painting. Altman did not try to trick or confuse me, and the story
seems to be simple one but I am not sure that I understood everything,
especially the enigmatic ending. Altman was aware of the effect of his
movie to the viewers and in his commentary he says that he sees the
film as a painting and that the audience should feel it but not
understand it. In this regard it also reminds of "Un chien andalou"
(1929) which was supposed to be experienced directly and not analyzed
by the viewers.
"3 Women" is another great film by one of the best American film directors. I've never seen a bad film from Robert Altman.
Indeed, few movies can haunt you 20 years after you've first seen them. Not
only that, even after you've seen them 20 times, still leaving you with a
desire to see them again and again? 3 Women is just such a movie. From
it's haunting Gerald Busby score, to Bodhi Wind's arresting murals, to the
captivating performances by Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek to Robert
Altman's deft writing and direction. This is a movie which will haunt you
and fascinate you.
I knew this movie was no ordinary movie when I seemed to be the only one in that 1977 audience who caught onto Shelley's disobedient skirt. Things began to appear slanted just off center - you just didn't know how off center they were. And that was and is the magic of this film. You never know what utter ridiculous impossibility of life will take hold of you and bring you through such a unusual journey.
Even as the credits start to roll, you begin to wonder: what have I just witnessed? what does this mean? why does it leave me wanting for answers?
Only after you've seen it as many times as I have do you stop asking those questions and accept all of these occurences as another window in the mind of a genius, which is Robert Altman. With all due respect to Nashville, this is his pinnacle of achievement.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Three Women is an utterly fascinating film, and, by my calculations, is
Altman's second best after Nashville, which few films can beat.
However, whereas I am so familiar with Nashville that I am actually
arrogant enough to believe I can understand it, Three Women does not
inspire that sort of confidence in me. I have no clue what exactly it
Basically, it is one of those movies where a woman, Pinky, admires her roommate Millie so much that she wishes to emulate her in every way, apparently even trying to steal her identity. In doing so, she freaks her roommate out, as can certainly be expected. She also freaks the audience out. It isn't all just a bunch of shivering, though. This movie contains a lot of humor which can only be called 'Altmanesque.' The great irony is that Pinky's object of admire is nothing but a bag of hot air. Millie is such a loser. At the film's opening, she is training Pinky for her new job at the nursing home. To any normal person, two weeks into the job, you'd be amazed at how much a moron the person is who showed you the ropes. She brags about men whom she rejects, but all the hot dates she claims to be going on never come to fruition. Millie also overreacts to Pinky's actions, yelling at her for very petty transgressions. When Millie does something that is grossly irresponsible and morally wrong, she attacks Pinky for judging those actions. Meanwhile, Pinky is creepily reciting passages from Millie's diary with the passion of a high school drama student.
Taking Ingmar Bergman's Persona as its major inspiration, around halfway through the film, after Pinky has an accident and goes into a coma, the two women begin to switch roles. Millie becomes the passive and protective roommate while Pinky becomes the aggressive vixen. Actually, Pinky becomes the mythic version of Millie.
But I have purposely left out the third woman of the title. I really am not sure about her, or the climax and the ending, in which she plays a major part. Her name is Willie, a pregnant woman married to a man named Edgar (who will, through the course of the film, also sleep with both Millie and Pinky). They run a bar where Millie likes to hang out, and they also live in the same apartment complex as Millie and Pinky. Edgar is an outgoing joker, and has no problem sleeping around on his wife. Willie is mostly silent, which is why she is easy to forget in the proceedings. She paints in a Native American style all over the bar and the apartment complex. She does so seemingly because she is compelled to. She despises complements about them. Throughout the film, her paintings comment on the situation between Millie and Pinky (they're used in a masterful fashion, but the pan-and-scan version that I saw on TV (it was also edited for time and content, dag nabbit) screws this up a bit). I don't know if she serves much more of a purpose than that for most of the film.
It is the ending which is especially peculiar, and it also most effectively channels Persona. Pinky has convinced Millie that she ought to have their apartment's master bedroom to herself (and Millie ought to sleep in the living room). Pinky has a surreal dream, which is punctuated by the camera's filming through a fish tank whose blue waters are undulating like a snake, in which she goes through the events of the past few months. She becomes frightened, and, much as Elisabeth Volger does in Persona, she wanders into Millie's bedroom. Here, though, she wakes Millie up, asking if she would mind sharing a bed tonight. As they try to sleep, Edgar wanders into their apartment, drunk off his rocker and spouting that Willie is giving birth all alone. Millie and Pinky race to her side. Millie tells Pinky to drive away and fetch a doctor, while she herself helps Willie deliver the child. Pinky, fascinated or frightened (she had earlier expressed fear about being pregnant herself), just stands there and stares. When the child is born, it is still. Willie cries in her bed, and Millie smacks Pinky for not getting a doctor.
The next scene takes place at a restaurant where Pinky is apparently a waitress. She bizarrely refers to Millie as her mother. We find out that Edgar accidentally killed himself with his gun, but the audience suspects differently (all three women had individual scenes where they shot at targets at the bar; they also all have reason to despise him). Millie and Pinky then leave the restaurant and walk back to their house, where Willie sits on a porch swing. Pinky talks to her as if they were sisters. They appear to be living together as a family.
Who else could end a film like that besides Altman? I've only lately come to notice this, but his endings are always enormously original. I just lately saw his latest film, Dr. T and the Women, which many people hated because of the ending. I cringe imagining what they would do with this one. If anyone has any ideas, please contact me. I will have to watch it again. Perhaps soon they will release it on DVD where I can watch it in its true form. 10/10.
We are all on the brink. Many of us have endearing qualities that are
lacking in others and vice versa. Do we question ourselves or do we
change drastically? Can we become better people or are we doomed with
our very own dismal personality traits? These are the questions that
the film, 3 Women, examines.
I saw this film as a 14 year old boy with no preconceptions. It made me feel like there were imposter's as well as identity thieves among us all. I even became suspicious of people who I considered to be my allies! A truly, classic piece of cinema paranoia (in the tradition of Polanski's The Tenant). Except in this case, there is no illusion. Just one ,blatant, slap in the face after another. When you watch this film, it will literally shed it's skin and reveal something that is spookily real and very threatening, without all the supernatural riff-raff and far-fetched plot. This is a film about REAL characters and REAL development. The ending can be summed up by the scene which precedes it, in which the three women are brought together by a rather tragic incident, as this breathes new "life" into their bleak, sometimes dusty environments. "One woman became two..Two became three...3 Women became One."
3 Women is a seriously strange mood study that plays like a languid
nightmare. It is an abstract and unusual film, loaded with symbolism.
The logic, if there is any, is dream logic. Everything is open to
interpretation. There is no sense to be made of it so don't even try.
The first half of the film is slow and aimless but things get very interesting once Pinky (brilliantly acted by Sissy Spacek) hits her head. Pinky sort of becomes Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Millie sort of becomes Pinky and they both sort of become the dream of Willie (Janice Rule) or maybe they don't. Listening to director Robert Altman's commentary on the DVD is revealing. He says that he sees the film as a painting and that the audience should feel it but not understand it.
The references to Persona are obvious but while watching 3 Women I was reminded of another haunting and puzzling film- Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Mysterious and deeply Freudian, 3 Women is one truly unique work so sit back and marvel at the inexplicable.
I saw "3 Women" in 1977. I went back to the cinema and saw it two more times, before I wrote a review. Though I have seen it many other times since then, today I do not recall every detail. Nevertheless I remember its story dealt with three women whose solidarity allows them to survive in a world dominated by insensitive men. Two of these women move the story, the third one does not have a direct influence on the events, but she is a key figure. There is no puzzle here, no enigma to decipher. It may be based on Robert Altman's dream, it may have a dream sequence, but it is quite linear and direct, with little relation to dreams' structure (or lack of it). I say this today but after finding my review in my files, I think it's ironic and makes me laugh at myself. By 1977 I had not read Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" yet and I was trying to decipher what the butter meant in "Last Tango in Paris". But I must admit that I find interesting some of the research I did and a few interpretations I made. I found then various leitmotivs in the movie: first, the grotesquely erotic murals painted and shot at by Willie (Janice Rule), that illustrate the oppressive situation of woman in phallocratic societies; water, which (according to French philosopher Dane Rudhyar) stands for collective consciousness and astral world, a symbol that for me tacitly connected the three women (and that has played an important role in other Altman films: "McCabe & Mrs. Miller", "Streamers", "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean", "The Gingerbread Man", "Dr. T & the Women", frozen in "Quintet", and even in "HealtH", "Popeye" and "O.C. and Stiggs"); the image of twins Peggy and Polly, duplicated in Alcira and Doris, mirroring the Millie-Pinky duplicity; and the clinic, as a metaphor of social and moral decay while its members attempt at efficiency. It may sound crazy but I even made a connection between the pool of the boarding house (owned by Willie) and a woman's womb (Willie's), where the temporary symbiosis of Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) into Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) takes place. Today I consider all these more hints than cryptic data, and sometimes they are even too obvious as the line when Millie says something like "Sometimes Peggy can be Polly, and Polly can be Peggy", gun-crazy Edgar as a symbol of sexual inadequacy and male authoritarianism, and the delivery of the dead child as a metaphor of the sterility of this kind of relationship between men and women. As I remember it today, it is a sad story of female bonding as a means of survival in a consumerist society, narrated in a beautiful cinematic style, with remarkable performances by all. (Funny, although Duvall had won the Best Actress Palm d'Or in Cannes, in my review the one who impressed me the most was Rule, because she was able to transmit so much with less than a dozen of lines). By far, it's my favorite Robert Altman movie and one of his masterpieces.
Playing would-be social butterfly Millie in Robert Altman's often-inscrutable "3 Women", Shelley Duvall creates an amazing, amusing, totally original character. Millie fancies herself a great caregiver at a job where others regard her as nothing; she talks about her neighbors and activities as if she's Sally Bowles, when actually nobody notices her. She's pathetic, but Duvall makes her funny and quirky (and Altman is careful not to make too much fun of her). Sissy Spacek as roommate Pinky is also fine in a less-showy, less-complex role, but her transformation in the second-half shows off her range. The film is slow but not dull, confusing but not off-putting (despite fuzzy cinematography). The one thing I really objected to was the ending, which plays like Greek tragedy mixed with Tennessee Williams. Nobody has dared to make another film like "3 Women". Altman-protégé Alan Rudolph captured some of its eccentric quality in "Welcome to L.A.", but his script wasn't clever enough. The writing here may seem simple, but this turns out to be deceptive: the dialogue is pungent with the ring of absurd truth. It took me a while to reconcile my feelings for this film. As soon as I decided how I felt about it, I couldn't wait to see it again. *** from ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
. . . which is a really good thing in this case.
If you've seen other Altman films, you know that he uses a very spontaneous, documentary style that glances here and there, picking up little bits of dialog and character. He lets the story, whatever it is, evolve naturally and doesn't force it.
In this film, things work a little differently. There is a fairly tight, classical story, sort of, even though a couple of big pieces are missing. Moreover, there is a very strong sense of symbolism in almost every shot, from Shelley Duval's first appearance, where she is pictured as a "new woman" displacing an older generation, to the scene where Sissy Spacek playfully puts a noose around her neck, foreshadowing her suicide attempt.
But here's the miracle: even though there's a lot of symbolism, the style still feels very loose and spontaneous and open, just like other Altman films. How this is possible, I don't know, but it's quite an accomplishment--almost unique in cinema, I think, in the way that each frame is simultaneously closed & symbolic but also open & realistic. Really, you have to see it to believe it.
Best of all, the story, which concerns three very different women, is perfectly suited to the style. This is a fable about the way women's identities are changing (or not) and it asks the right questions without giving clear answers.
Actingwise, the real treat here is Shelley Duval as the "new woman," the Cosmo girl, plastic and fake and shallow and miserable and somehow, at the same time, horribly and hilariously alive. You will not forget her, or the double-sided, real/symbolic world she moves in.
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