3 Women (1977)

Director:  Robert Altman
Cast:  Shelley DuvallSissy SpacekJanice Rule, Robert Fortier
Plot:  Pinky is an awkward adolescent who starts work at a spa in the California desert. She becomes overly attached to fellow spa attendant, Millie when she becomes Millie's room-mate. Mille is a lonely outcast who desperately tries to win attention with constant up-beat chatter. They hang out at a bar owned by a strange pregnant artist and her has-been cowboy husband.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Actress and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 BAFTA - Best Actress.
Runtime:  124min
Rating:  PG for some thematic issues.

“I had the most wonderful dream...”

Seven years into film reviewing, and this is only the second Robert Altman film I have seen after MASH (1970).  Watching 3 Women makes me both curious and regretful.  It has ignited my curiosity about Altman’s other works, notably well-regarded pictures like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001), many I have heard about but never made the effort to catch.  At the same time, I regret not giving Altman more attention than I would have liked to. 

3 Women is not exactly a staggering achievement, but it is Altman’s at his most surreal.  It gets under your skin by dictating not how you think, but how you feel.  And how you feel is all that matters in this enigmatic work, even if you can’t possibly describe what that feeling is, though I believe it is the feeling of watching great cinema unfold and it feels that way with 3 Women

It features two mesmerizing performances from Sissy Spacek (Carrie, 1976; Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980) and Shelly Duvall (The Shining, 1980) who play Pinky and Millie respectively.  Pinky becomes attracted to Millie when they spend time together during and after work.  They become roommates.  Then things start to become strange, even bordering on the disturbing. 

3 Women works like a hallucinatory dreamscape, something that is a toss between Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.  Altman’s use of sound and music (composed by Gerald Busby – his one and only score for a feature narrative) is masterful.  The music comes across as experimental and unsettling, while sound is given particular emphasis in a powerful, dreamy montage sequence towards the end.

By using physical ‘veils’ such as water and mirrors, Altman and his cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr. give us an impressionistic and chilling quality to the film’s visual style, accompanied by slow zooms and pans, and its subliminal focus on a bizarre woman named Willie (Janice Rule) and her morbid fresco paintings on grounds and walls. 

David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, describes 3 Women as “such a seamless weave of image, sound, story, and character that no plot summary can do it justice”.  Made in 1977 when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg released Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind respectively, 3 Women is the antithesis of the blockbuster treatment, yet it received studio backing from 20th Century Fox despite a rapidly changing economic landscape. 

3 Women was literally, metaphorically and cinematically a dream project for Altman, and I am quite sure it is one of his very best.

Verdict:  Dreamlike, mesmerizing and enigmatic, this is as close as you get to a surreal dose of Robert Altman.


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