Deservedly one of the most unusual and compelling films of the 1970s, Robert Altman abandons conventional narrative and creates something truly creative and personal. Conceived from an actual dream of his, 3 Women resembles a rare opportunity for us to enter a creative mind as though it were subconsciously creating a story that delves into mysterious territory.
- Director: Robert Altman
- Writer: Robert Altman
- Cast: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Ruth Nelson
Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a young nurse beginning her new job at a health center for the elderly. Immediately, Pinky becomes obsessed with Millie (Shelley Duvall), an aloof but well-meaning young nurse showing her the ropes. Their friendship leads to them living together, though roommate tensions soon begin to surface and a series of eerie transformations begin to unravel. Meanwhile, the oddly paired couple who own the same apartment building become linked to the dream-like trappings all around them.
The story of 3 Women came directly from a dream Altman had. Quite naturally, the film has a surreal quality, focusing more on mood, a sense of mystery and idiosyncratic behavior. Lacking an airtight plot, Altman shares a dream by creating an experience that mostly conveys a sense of bizarre and intertwining layers. Even the dialogue is often overlapping, a characteristic for which Altman was well-known. Above all else, 3 Women stays in our minds due to its unusual quality and visually elaborate scenes. There is plenty of the unsettling imagery, but it is not for cheap effect, it fits into the weird and inexplicable mutations of the characters themselves. Making matters stranger still are Edgar (Robert Fortier), a drunk, and his wife, Willie (Janice Rule), a quiet and pregnant women fixated with painting odd murals. They are the owners of the apartment building and both get sucked into Pinky and Millie’s world.
The beginning of the film feels staged at first. Shelley Duvall’s acting comes off as exactly that, acting. She comes off as annoying, with her delusional attempts at charisma, and her pathetic attention to men who openly mock her. But there is genius in how she plays this, and though her delusions are sad, she manages to get part of our pity. Equally unimpressive at first, Sissy Spacek’s performance is mostly subdued in the first act, as her character mostly observes and takes in the world around her. The film itself is rich in observations of behavioral nuance across the board. However, after what at first seems headed towards a place of forgetful and flat performances, Duvall and Spacek reach a mesmerizing level of acting achievement. When Pinky wakes up from a coma after an attempted suicide, her parents arrive to see her in the hospital, though she claims to not recognize them. We never find out if they are or not. From this moment, Spacek’s performance changes course entirely. Millie becomes increasingly frustrated with Pinky’s shift in personality, which strangely mimics her own. Much like in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Pinky and Millie undergo a type of eerie role-reversal that seems to capture Altman’s dream. Much like the Altman’s blending of style of substance, much like the protagonists, merge together in a way that is indistinguishable.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review begins by alluding to the unfinished nature of revisited dreams. Without being entirely lucid or logical, the movie ends up feeling complete as is. In this way, Ebert accurately describes the feeling one gets when watching 3 Women. As he named it the best film of 1977, Mr. Ebert reminds us that this is a film filled with mirrors, reflections and multiple images, where Millie always seems to be “primping, making minute adjustments to her clothes and hair, perfecting her makeup, admiring herself in reflection while no one else seems to quite see her.” There is much that one can interpret from this film, but like any good film diving into the surreal, 3 Women is perhaps best if mostly left unexplained.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like 3 Women? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Only Son
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Robert Altman’s 3 Women this week, he now has 312 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.