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‘3 WOMEN’ – Robert Altman’s Fever Dream and Maybe Masterpiece

April 14, 2017

Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) is a unique viewing experience. It flouts easy genre categorization, and carries the distinctive air of an otherworldly dream within a contemporary (for 1977) milieu. Is it a conventional drama? Certainly not. Is it horror? Still no, though Gerald Busby’s musical score might lead you to believe otherwise. It’s a mixture of elements that produces a calculated dissonance, and it’s an experimental gem from Altman’s monolithic career.

3 Women stars Sissy Spacek as Pinky, and Shelley Duvall as Millie. Pinky is a slob, childlike, and relatively guileless with men. Millie is classically feminine (please take that as a value-neutral statement) though perhaps only superficially so; she is well dressed, cooks, lives in an immaculately-kept apartment, and flows over with fashionable lifestyle advice. Who is the third woman? While the cast list is likely to tip viewers off that the third woman is Willie, local artist and businesswoman played by Janice Rule, 3 Women is essentially a two-woman show for most of its runtime.

3 Women Poster Rober Altman

Pinky starts a new job at a therapy center, assisting elderly patients with water aerobics and other activities. On the job, she meets and is trained by Millie. The two women take a liking to one another and they quickly begin to display an uncanny connection to one another. Plot-wise, there is not much more than that. There are more characters, but their presences are mostly incidental.

The movie leaves intricate plotting by the wayside, instead opting to explore the relationship between the two central characters. Millie and Pinky’s differing personalities complement each other and they begin to compensate for one another in social situations. There are many scenes shared by Pinky and Millie in which one of them does all of the talking to the other characters while the other seemingly ceases to exist. Altman very deliberately directs the viewer to believe that the two women just might be co-alter-egos of the same person, or perhaps that either one of them—or some of the supporting characters they interact with—are hallucinations. Any of their one-on-one conversations could be interpreted as a dynamic internal monologue. That the oddness lingers in such a way, even with evidence to the contrary, is part of what makes the movie so tantalizing.

Altman has a ball using mirrors, windows and pools to reflect characters at odd angles. When Millie and Pinky (and sometimes Willie) are together onscreen, one of them is often seen reflected in a mirror. Whether this technique is meant to probe the subconscious or suggest some type of shared existence is not immediately clear, but it does make for some patently odd imagery.

A lot of tension is wrung from the core relationship. More tension still comes from the recurrent theme of sexual dysfunction. Pinky seems to be haunted by sexually aggressive art depicting humanoid beasts, that happens to have been painted by Willie. Millie and Pinky have a traumatic falling out over a one-night stand. The vastly different comfort levels they exhibit with the opposite sex drives them apart as much as their affinity holds them together.

It all adds up to a two-hour fever dream of a movie. Some questions resolve themselves over the course of the film, but something akin to a role-reversal in the final act shakes everything up and raises even more questions.

It might be impossible to consume 3 Women’s odd combination of atmospheric unease with its mundane onscreen action without thinking of the works of David Lynch. Amazingly, Eraserhead was released a mere three weeks before 3 Women. Singular works such as these tend to show their influence through other filmmakers. The influence becomes traceable through generations of filmmakers. It’s a marvel that these two were being developed simultaneously. Despite Lynch’s Eraserhead proving that he was already tapped into his experimental side by the time 3 Women debuted, it is difficult to imagine that Lynch hadn’t internalized Altman’s film by the time he unleashed his magnum opusMulholland Drive (2001), which shares a number of undeniable parallels.

3 Women is a masterpiece of surrealist cinema, a classic of a bygone age of experimental cinema, and possibly one of Altman’s crowning achievements. It will definitely play best with adventurous viewers, but 3 Women comes highly recommended nonetheless.

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