Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Director: Robert Altman
Audio: English monaural 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Director commentary, trailers, still gallery
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: April 20, 2004

"I wonder what it's like to be twins...do you think they know which one they are?"

Film *** 1/2

The 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.

Around 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.

3 Women 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 say.

Pinky, 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 worship. 

There 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.

Eventually, 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.

The 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.

There 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.  

What 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.

Altman 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.

The 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 Circle.

In 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 whole.

For 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.

Video *** 1/2

3 Women is 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.

Audio ***

3 Women is 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.

Features ** 1/2

The 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.

Also 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.

There is a very enormous still gallery further divided in different sections.  Each section contains a vast number of various production or promotional photographs.  The "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.

The 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 reading!


Fans of character-driven films, and especially of Robert Altman films, will appreciate 3 Women.    It is one of the director's more psychologically challenging works, but it is certainly as compelling as his more famous, commercially-oriented films.