Sunday, March 17, 2013

3 Women (1977)

          Deliberately opaque and sluggishly paced, 3 Women represents maverick auteur Robert Altman’s filmmaking at its least accessible. With its clinical depiction of weird behavior and its cringe-inducing storyline about an odd young woman coveting the existence of a fellow misfit, 3 Women is a cinematic cousin to Ingmar Bergman’s personality-transfer psychodrama Persona (1966). The difference, of course, is that Persona makes sense. Written, produced, and directed by Altman, 3 Women a thriller with heavily surrealistic elements, so the actual narrative matters less than the sick stuff crawling beneath the surface. Further, Altman has said that the film came to him as a dream, and these roots are evident in the way Altman strings together bizarre signifiers—the movie’s random components include a speechless woman who paints epic murals on the base of a swimming pool, a middle-aged dude whose claim to fame is having been the stunt double for TV cowboy Hugh O’Brien, and a pair of bitchy twins.
          Set in a dusty town in rural California, the picture begins when spooky-eyed young waif Pinky (Sissy Spacek) shows up for her first day of work at an aquatic rehab center for seniors. (Cue grotesque shots of aging thighs descending into water.) Assigned to mentor Pinky is gangly chatterbox Millie (Shelley Duvall), who inexplicably believes herself irresistible to friends and suitors alike, even though she’s constantly mocked and rebuffed. Pinky gravitates to Millie, and the two become roommates. (Cue weird sequence of touring a semi-abandoned Old West theme park near Millie’s apartment building.) As the story drags on—and on and on—Pinky covertly studies her roommate and does little things to screw with Millie’s existence, until finally the women arrive at some strange new level of understanding.
          As for what exactly that new level of understanding comprises, your guess is as good as mine; even Altman has admitted he doesn’t know what the picture’s ending means.
          3 Women is filled with ominous textures, such as guttural music cues and, at one point, an extended, impressionistic montage of murder scenes and trippy artwork. There’s also a recurring motif of vignettes seen through a veil of water, as if the story’s events occur at some unknowable depth of consciousness. 3 Women is catnip for viewers who crave ferociously individualistic cinema, because there’s no mistaking this ethereal symphony for an ordinary movie. And, indeed, the picture has many respectable admirers: Roger Ebert is a fan, and after a long period in which the film was commercially unavailable, it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.
          That said, is the movie actually worth watching for mere mortals? Depends on what rocks your world. I found 3 Women pointless and tedious, little more than self-indulgent regurgitation of personal dream imagery. Yet I admit that I rarely enjoy movies lacking grounded narratives, and that I have mixed feelings about Altman’s tendency to pick the scabs of human strangeness. However, the strength of a movie like 3 Women is that it’s a different experience for every viewer—where I saw only ugliness, you may find beauty.

3 Women: FREAKY


Will Errickson said...

I can see how it's not for everyone but 3 WOMEN hit my sweet spot. I *loved* it! If you're interested, this is my own review from a few years back:

Lee S said...

I love 3 Women, its what inspired me to declare Altman to be my favorite American director.
Sorry to read you didn't enjoy it.

I feel its about birth, growth, and the realizations that its up to yourself to be who we are, and not other people.

Anyways, I will continue to read some of your other entries.

robin said...

That's an honest review: you missed the point... and will continue to miss the point for any film that doesn't have a concrete narrative. That's depressing. If film was only plot it would be totally boring. If it was free of ugliness, it would be Disney or Star Wars or some other childish crap.

But no, film is here to create a unique cinematic experience that no other form can manage. It does this through the very thing you disparage (not just here but in other reviews): imagery. Altman, at his best, is a master of unsettling juxtapositions of youth and age, beauty and ugliness, birth and death, humour and horror, concrete reality (the kitch) and ethereal subjectivity. 3 Women is Altman at his peak in all regards, an exploration of the phenomenological limits of personality and communication.

Regardless, I can give you some useful advice. Never watch a Stan Brakhage film!