3 Women, 1977.
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell and Craig Richard Nelson.
An awkward adolescent begins work at a spa in the Californian desert. The shy and reserved young woman becomes overly attached to her more confident co-worker and eventual room-mate.
3 Women is a memorably disturbing film with its heart set firmly on the art house. Said to be inspired by a dream, Robert Altman’s (M.A.S.H., Short Cuts, The Player) feature is also strongly reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s beautifully nightmarish Persona. Indeed, both films focus on the transient nature of behaviour and psyche, and reveal the unlimited potential for personalities to rebuild and redevelop.
Taking a look at the mysteries of femininity through a male filmmaker’s hazy vision is something else both films have in common. This fear of pre-judged emotional unpredictability and instability has been something of a constant in horror stories since well before the development of cinema. But, as the title of the film suggests, it was even rarer in 70’s Hollywood to contain more than one female lead and no male star than it is today. For this fact alone, the film was breaking plenty of ground.
The ancient male view of femininity represented as the mother, the virgin and the whore are all present in the three shifting characteristics of the women. And it is this sense of gender politics and psychology framed within a fairytale like quest for meaning that provides much of the film’s valuable commentary. As with all the best creative works, it tells us just as much about the artist as it does its subjects.
Pinky Rose (Spacek) arrives for work at a Californian desert town spa and soon grows dependent on colleague Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall). The two couldn’t be more different – Pinky’s awkward and furtive looks around the work place are in marked contrast to the outspoken Millie’s constant attention seeking.
Millie is extremely talkative, but she talks at people, rather than with them. During the first part of the movie Pinky doesn’t say much of anything at all, satisfied to watch Millie and draw in as much of her energy as she can. Or that’s certainly how it seems.
The two spend more and more time together – becoming room-mates in the process – and Pinky sees more of Millie’s somewhat limited social life. This largely consists of hanging out in the theme bar of ‘Dodge City’ with off-duty cops, dudes and dirt bikes. It is in this typically male environment that Pinky briskly downs her beer, providing the first indication that she may not be quite what she seems.
The two are joined in this game of mental hide and seek by Willie Hart (Janice Rule), a local artist and wife of a faux-cowboy (Robert Fortier) who Pinky finds in bed one night with Millie. This discovery of the sexual act culminates in a suicidal dive into the apartment’s communal swimming pool. From then on Pinky – whose real name just happens to be Mildred – and Millie start to switch places in a constantly shifting and surreal series of events.
Unclear as to where one character begins and one ends, 3 Women is a challenging film to say the least. It brings an outlandish shadow-play of neuroses and unreadable motivations out to the fore, in what is a film to savour and ask difficult questions of.
As a side note, is also interesting to see Millie’s initial nonchalant question to Pinky ‘haven’t you ever seen twins before?” given what Duvall would experience in Kubrick’s The Shining a few years later. Disquieting!
BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
Arrow Film’s new 4K digital restoration offers a tremendous view of the lights and shadows involved in the Californian sun. The set also includes:
* New video interview with David Thompson, editor of ‘Altman on Altman’ and producer of the BBC’s ‘Robert Altman in England’
* Archive interview with Shelley Duvall from the Cannes Film Festival – the actress describes working with Altman, his methods and how she started acting
* Galleries featuring behind-the-scenes photos, the Cannes Film Festival press conference and promotional images
* Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Jenkins and excerpts from Altman on Altman, illustrated with original stills
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.