3 Women (1977) (E)

IMDb / Ebert 1 / Ebert 2 / Cale
Written and Directed by Robert Altman

2006: the year I discovered Robert Altman. It’s not that I was unfamilar with his work – I knew of his high status, and had seen Short Cuts and Gosford Park, considering the former to be greatly impressive. I think I was just too young for any of it to really stick with me, or to motivate me to seek out more. Well, after Nashville, I really wanted more, and decided I might as well start with one I’d read virtually nothing about. 3 Women is an extraordinary film, one that washes over you and stuns you, lingering in the mind long after viewing it, daring you to forget it.

At first it seems more about two women than three: Shelley Duvall’s Millie, a woman so enveloped in her own trendiness that she doesn’t notice that everyone is laughing at her, and Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, so childlike as to appear utterly dependent on Millie’s guidance (at work, at home, and down the pub). Here, it’s extremely tempting to simply discuss the narrative of the film, because it so closely resembles a dream; there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else one can go when discussing it. Indeed, it came to Altman fully-formed in a dream, and that doesn’t surprise given that it progresses exactly as a dream would – strange, bewildering, sometimes completely illogical, but always feeling natural. You know how you only realise how strange that dream was after you wake up? That’s what it’s like after watching this movie.

I’m not going to do that, though. I came to it untainted by any kind of plot summary, so I’m going to avoid that from now on. Like in Nashville, the characters are defined mostly by their flaws. Millie is often painful to watch, walking just behind other pairs, talking constantly but never being listened to. She sincerely believes that all the men desire her, but before she is even up the steps they ridicule her. Pinky is the exact opposite, a blank slate who approaches every aspect of adult life as though it was for the first time. She believes Millie is helping her, educating her well, which is even more painful because her mentor couldn’t be more misguided. The third woman of the title, pregnant Willie, is usually seen painting disturbing, pained figures on the pool walls and floor. She seems alienated, or alien, out of step with her surroundings. We don’t follow her the way we follow Millie and Pinky, but we often feel her presence in the background, watching over proceedings like a… something.

The music is the first clue. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to fit at all, but it steadily becomes more and more appropriate until it goes perfectly with the images and tone. And it’s not just a case of becoming used to it – the film actually changes into something different, a clear but not incongruous shift. Just like a dream. Then there’s the impeccable film technique, timing every shot just right, and in a few notable cases surprising us with anomalies such as double reflections and a wavy fluid that sometimes partially obscures the image. It’s very strange, and dreamlike. You get it, I’m sure.

Again, Altman captures the potential of the form without resorting to lazy hoodwinks or clich├ęs. The notions that could lead to disappointment are there, but they are executed perfectly. You don’t necessarily understand it – and quite likely, you shouldn’t – but it doesn’t feel wrong, or a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Mulholland Dr., but I kind of feel like Lynch pulled the wool over our eyes. Nothing wrong with that per se, but with Altman there are no smoke and mirrors, and no pretensions. He shows us some stuff, and leaves the rest up to us. A genius and a giant of cinema.

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