Review by Ed Nguyen
Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Director: Robert Altman
Audio: English monaural 1.0
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Director commentary, trailers, still gallery
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: April 20, 2004
wonder what it's like to be twins...do you think they know which one they are?"
1970's was a very good decade for director Robert Altman.
Beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and continuing with such films as McCabe
and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Nashville
(1975), Altman directed a number of well-received films which epitomized the
character-oriented cinema of that era. He
mixed commercially successful films with unconventional, artistic endeavors that
allowed him to explore the language and storytelling potential of the medium.
While such films were not always embraced by the viewing audiences, they
nevertheless solidified Altman's reputation as a top director in the
international film community.
the middle of the decade, Altman entertained the possibility of creating a film
from an idea that had materialized in a dream during one restless night's sleep.
Presenting his concept to 20th-Century Fox, he was given the studio's
support. But while the Fox studio was clearly hoping to recapture some
of the commercial success of Altman's M*A*S*H,
the director envisioned a darker, more surreal film. His pet project would be set in the Californian desert
wasteland, centering around women and the ambiguity of personality or the
elusiveness of self-identity. Such
themes of identity have been addressed in films over the years, probably most
recently in the generic thriller Single
White Female, but Altman's approach would draw inspiration more from Ingmar
Bergman's brilliant Persona than from
any conventional Hollywood picture. Altman
pictured the women in his concept to be lost souls who, in not quite
understanding life, must struggle in their own ways to find a meaningful purpose
to their existence. The completed
film, 3 Women (1977), was probably not
what the Fox studio had anticipated, but the film remains to this day one of
Altman's more compelling experiments in abstract filmmaking.
follows the lives of three women living in a sleepy Californian town.
One of the women is Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a transplanted Southern
girl, recently arrived from Texas. She
finds employment as a nursing attendant at a local health spa for the elderly
and infirmed. On her first day, she
meets another nurse, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), who orients Pinky to
her new job. Millie is chatty and
friendly, though she is ignored by most everyone around her.
The fact that no one apparently heeds her presence does not dissuade
Millie from maintaining her high spirits and cheerful air of confidence.
She is essentially living in her own glamorous reality construct, where
handsome men routinely fawn over her and everyone listens to what she has to
on the other hand, is almost child-like and innocent, lacking any discernible
personality. Having no friends and
being new in town, she watches the other nurses at the spa and silently attempts
to emulate their gestures or manners. In
Millie, she finds a fellow Texan and a possible friend.
To Pinky, Millie becomes an ideal role model, displaying an air of
quasi-sophistication and even sexuality that the na´ve Pinky lacks.
Millie is, in Pinky's eyes, the "most perfect person" she has
ever met, and Pinky quickly attaches herself to Millie in a sort of hero
is a third woman, but we see little of her initially. Her name is Willie Hart (Janice Rule), and she is a quiet,
pregnant artist who spends her time painting murals near a local pub, Dodge
City. Willie is a reticent,
reclusive type, perhaps in a sense an older and wiser image of Pinky.
Pinky moves in with Millie and becomes her new roommate.
It is after this point that the film embarks upon its surrealist flights
of fancy, even while rooted within an apparently conventional and realistic
setting. Increasingly, we see
instances in which Pinky and Millie perform similar tasks with only minor
variations; Altman is suggesting that Millie and Pinky are perhaps mirror images
of one another, an idea further reinforced by the revelation that Pinky's real
name is Mildred, of which Millie's own name is a derivation.
This recurring theme of cross-identity is further emphasized by a pair of
twins who also work at the health spa and who Pinky attempts to emulate.
The twins mirror one another's actions; they exist in their own private
reality as well, choosing to ignore everything and everyone around them.
In a sense, Millie already lives in such a fashion, and Pinky, in her
quest to find a purpose for herself, begins to adopt the mannerisms and style of
her closest friend. As the film progresses, Millie and Pinky almost seem to
perceivably change personalities while the delineation between Millie-as-friend
and perhaps Millie-as-twin fades.
symbol of Pinky's definitive transformation into her own role model is a
near-drowning experience, after which she "becomes" Millie.
It is one of several examples throughout this film of how water, or even
sanguineous fluids, is symbolic of rebirth and serves as a voyeuristic medium
into the lives of others. A second
transformation occurs near the film's conclusion with the birth of Willie's
infant, portrayed in rather bloody and graphic details for a PG film.
The conclusion ultimately brings all three women together, each occupying
a slightly different role yet each essentially linked to the others as though by
blood relation. Pinky addresses
Millie as "her mother" and Willie, probably the most independent and
strongest-willed character of the film, seems to have regressed to the
dependency of childhood.
is also a strong sexual undercurrent to the film. Millie is always exaggerating her appeal to men.
Willie's murals are highly eroticized and ubiquitous, appearing
everywhere from the pool decorations of Millie's Purple Sage apartment complex
to the dried-out venues of Dodge City. All
three women develop varying relationships with the same man, and it is
ultimately through him that the three women are united in the end.
does it all mean then? Does 3
Women attempt to convey the elusiveness of defining personality?
Is it in some way a thesis upon the idea of split personalities?
Does it suggest that reality is only how one chooses to accept or define
it, and that one person's reality may be entirely different to another's yet be
just as valid? There is an
extensive dream sequence near the conclusion of the film that offers clues to
several possible interpretations of the film through its juxtapositions of
images and fluid motifs. Yet, the
sequence, in its surrealism and non-linearity, coupled with eerie atonal music,
only offers suggestions, not firm statements.
is known for such stylized flourishes. His
films tend to be idiosyncratic, with overlapping sound and dialogue, fluid
ensemble work, and frequent revisionist flair. On the other hand, his films also frequently maintain a
natural appearance and every-day feel, which Altman encourages in everything
from the improvisational nature of his films to his allowing small accidents to
remain on-camera. 3 Women is a good example of Altman's rebel style of filmmaking,
with its experimental nature set in a sparse middle-America that recalls earlier
films such as Badlands (also starring
Spacek) or even Easy Rider.
Spacek's performance even resembles to some degree her similarly innocent
Southern girl from Badlands.
best performance in 3 Women, though,
comes from Shelley Duvall. She
infuses the role of the flirtatious Millie with subtle but undeniable energy;
one can sense that beneath her optimism and bright outlook, Millie's
sexually-charged behavior is perhaps a reflection of her own sense of
incompletion. Duvall was in fact
probably Altman's favorite actress, having appeared in seven of his films.
For her performance in 3 Women, Duvall won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, while
Spacek herself won best supporting actress from the New York Film Critics
many ways, 3 Women is a difficult film
to appreciate only in text. Much as
in Persona, its impact lies within the
visual and psychological spectrum, whose surface plotline only barely touches
upon the underlying depths. The
film may contain three women but it is really about one woman, splintered into
three separate yet linked egos. Individually,
they are incomplete, but united by the end of the film, their existence is
a mainstream film, 3 Women is
remarkably vague and ambiguous, directly challenging audiences to draw their own
conclusions. It is probably the
sort of film that would never get made in the lowest-common-denominator
mentality of today's film industry. It
barely even seems a typical Altman work, resembling more a film channeling the
psychological drama of a Roman Polanski's Repulsion
or The Tenant as possibly interpreted
by Ingmar Bergman. Offering no
obvious answers or tidy interpretations, 3
Women may likely remain inaccessible to viewers simply looking for two hours
of mindless diversion. However,
those viewers willing to invest effort and thought into the film will find it to
be a stimulating work that stands up well to Altman's more famous, commercial
endeavors of the 1970's.
presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format.
The transfer was created from a new 35mm interpositive made from the
original camera negative. The color
scheme has a sun-bleached, desert-yellow russet tone to it.
The image has a pleasing, mildly soft quality that seems to accentuate
the laid-back nature of the town and the film's setting.
Some scenes, photographed through a wave machine, have a swirling,
aquatic feel to them, too. Overall,
picture quality is excellent, and there is no discernible debris on the print.
presented with its original English mono soundtrack.
The 1.0 signal is presented front and center but can be switched to a
two-channel playback if so desired. The
sound is crisp and clean, and the film's abstract music is reproduced without
distortion. There is nothing flashy
about this audio, but it is nevertheless quite satisfactory, overall.
main bonus feature on this Criterion disc is a commentary track by Robert Altman
himself. Recorded in 2003, the
commentary provides the director an opportunity to discuss not only 3
Women but occasionally his philosophy on the filmmaking process, too.
Altman rambles at times, but he does offer some enlightening facts about
the film - how its concept arose from a dream, the lucky accidents on the set,
the stylized murals that decorated the film, and more.
included are two bizarre trailers, which make 3 Women look positively Fellini-esque. In contrast, two TV spots are included which make the film
appear to be a suspense mystery.
is a very enormous still gallery further divided in different sections.
Each section contains a vast number of various production or promotional
"Portraits" section (36 photos) contains publicity shots, including
those of the main actors and Altman himself.
One of the publicity shots, a split-screen shot, is even strongly
reminiscent of a similar shot used in Ingmar Bergman's psychological Persona.
"Murals" (20) briefly discusses artist Bodhi Wind and shows the
mural art he created for the film's sets. The
"spa" section (59) offers numerous production shots taken during the
film's spa sequences. The
"Dodge City" section (55) has photos from the local bar setting, while
"Purple Sage" (26) contains shots taken from the apartment setting.
"Pinky Reborn" (31) centers upon scenes of Pinky's
near-drowning accident. Lastly, the
"Dreams" (18) focuses on the significant dream sequence that occurs
late in the film.
package insert contains an excellent article, written by David Sterritt, a
professor and film historian. As
president of the National Society of Film Critics, he clearly knows a great deal
about the subject matter and introduces a great deal of historical perspective
about 3 Women and its themes into his
article. It's definitely worth