[Film Review] 3 Women (1977)

3 Women poster

Title: 3 Women
Year: 1977
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Director/Writer: Robert Altman
Music: Gerald Busby
Cinematography: Charles Rosher Jr.
Shelley Duvall
Sissy Spacek
Janice Rule
Robert Fortier
Ruth Nelson
John Cromwell
Sierra Pecheur
Craig Richard Nelson
Belita Moreno
Maysie Hoy
Rating: 8.2/10

A strange fixation sprouts from Robert Altman’s dream-inspired 3 WOMEN, an adolescent girl Pinky Rose (Spacek), newly hired to work at a spa facility for geriatrics in a desert town, California, intuitively she is engrossed with her colleague Millie (Duvall), both from Texas, and before soon, she becomes the latter’s new roommate, like a dew-eyed doe, Pinky crazes about living together with Millie, and expects their friendship to bloom.

But in reality Millie, who is lionised as “the perfect person in the world” by Pinky, is anything but a role-model, a reedy, fastidious, but ostensibly confident woman who has a propensity for incorrigible verbosity on trivialities, which is her defense mechanism against the inimical world, where no one gives a damn about her, from her frigid co-workers to prim spa doctors and her neighbors, uniformly they treat her like air, a laugh-stocking, she is a wallflower but her spirit is never dejected. So the sudden adulation from a meek Pinky seems ginger Millie up, although she doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with the latter’s ungainliness and naiveté. She brings Pinky to her haunt, a tavern and shooting range called Dodge City, owned by Edgar Hart (Fortier), a former cowpoke and his pregnant wife Willie (Rule), who constitutes the film’s titular triad together with Pinky and Mille (3 women of different ages facing their crises. Interesting, in fact Spacek and Duvall are both born in 1949), and is often seen assiduously and taciturnly painting grotesque murals (courtesy of artist Bodhi Wind) of naked human-like creatures often pierced with violence, which has been eerily montaged and edited from a swimming pool to the spa populated with flabby fleshes in the film’s striking opening sequence.

A dividing line occurs when Pinky commits a suicidal attempt after being upbraided by a despairing Millie, who is willing to put out with the sleazy Edgar despite Pinky’s dissent. When Pinky wakes up from her coma, her entire personality takes a sea change, repudiates her visiting parents (cameos from Golden Age director John Cromwell and his wife Ruth Nelson), refuses to be called as Pinky, but Mildred, her real name, which is also Millie’s. Meanwhile Millie, apparently driven by guilt, capitulates to Pinky’s whims, an about-face counter-move, only, it is galling for her to see that Pinky is doing much better in the front of getting guys’ attention.

That is where this torrid female-centered drama swerves into an oneiric realm of confusion, contradiction and angst (accentuated by a sterling constellations of re-arranged cut-ups), culminating in a stillborn-delivery flurry filtered through lens of surrealism (the eyes of a rapt Pinky), with a discombobulating coda seems to overthrow all the previous designations and align the three-women under the same roof, with a hint there is no man needed in their picture. Truth to be told, 3WOMEN is probably the most offbeat film among Altman’s corpus (no complete script is produced and Duvall improvises most of her compulsive babbling), but it stimulates viewers with a piquant female-empowering awakening: consumed by their inherent disparities, united by their resilience, whether their roles are mother, lover or child, which stems from Altman’s own deep sympathy and piercing insight towards the other sex, overtly, a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), and a further plumbing of perturbed female psyche after IMAGES (1972).

Shelley Duvall, crowned BEST ACTRESS in Cannes, is indubitably emanating her career-best flair here, a self-consciously droll figure smoldering with low confidence, exasperation and vulnerability, which makes her Millie an authentic character, not because she is likable or sympathetic, but because of her characteristic ambiguity as a human being, that essence defines each and every individual who once sets foot on this planet, which ineffably strikes a chord under Altman’s level-headed tutelage and through Duvall’s unaffected interpretation. Sissy Spacek, fresh from her star-making bravura in Brian de Palma’s CARRIE (1976), is equally electrifying with a carriage coalescing her Janus-faced transmogrification: a plain-looking ingénue and a lethally child-faced hussy. Janice Rule, whose Willie remains elusive and mythic due to her shortchanged screen-time and dialogue-free requirement, but whenever she is on-screen, she balances off Millie-Pinky’s earthy pair with a tinge of uncanny mystique.

Finally, a pat on composer Gerald Busby’s back for his distinctively unsettling score, circulating and hovering like a primordial creature around the film’s mundane and dispiriting setting, tantalizing clueless viewers with an open-ended psychological riddle which archly boost the sophistication of a human brain and its nocturnal secretion.

referential points: Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966) 7.7/10; Robert Altman’s IMAGES (1972) 8.1/10

Oscar 1977  3 Women

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