Robert Altman was a cause celebre in the 1970s - one either heard people praising his latest film to the heavens, or saying that he'd once again laid an egg. M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller were substantial hits, but pictures like Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Long Goodbye infuriated audiences with their odd refusal to behave like normal Hollywood fare. Quintet held the record for walkouts; Images barely got released.
Altman's 1977 offering 3 Women is the most satisfactory of his etherial dream movies. The cast and strange goings-on are interesting enough to keep most audiences in their seats, even though some of them seemed to resent the film by the time the house lights came up. And who could blame them? '77 was the year of Star Wars, and here was a weird story about odd personalities and shifting identities that felt like a dream and proceeded with a strange dream logic.
"Any dream is fine unless it has stupid melting clocks in it." - Salvador Dali
Dali didn't actually say that but it helps to know that the bizarre goings-on in 3 Women were inspired by a dream the director had. The rest of the actual story was sketched in by a writing helper uncredited in the movie (but listed above). Altman supposedly shot the film without a script.
This is made possible by faith in his actors and his situation, and in the case of 3 Women it seems to work. Millie Lammoreax is Shelley Duvall's best work, an original character we all recognize. She's the girl who thinks that following the lead of magazines and advertisements can replace a missing personality. Millie's not intelligent but she is sincere, and her painfully lame attempts to make friends at work or at her singles apartments all end fruitlessly. She's either too thick to realize she's being constantly trashed, or more likely, in heavy denial. Mostly she's lonely, as seen by her one-sided conversations with people who ignore her, and this is what makes the arrival of open-faced, seemingly innocent Pinky seem such an opportunity. When Spacek's freckled Pinky tells Millie that she has to be the most perfect person she knows, Millie's face lights up - slowly, as it dawns on her that her leg's not being pulled.
Everything after this transpires in a dreamy, flowing state created by Altman's long-lens mastershots that tend to drift across scenes. The story is not told in cuts. It's all as fluid as the incessant water symbolism - spas, pools, empty pools, liquids, blood, even the foreground distortion that some scenes are shot through. Like a haunting refrain, we keep cutting to Bodhi Wind's disturbing murals that feature animalistic monster humans with distorted sex organs. The girls' pregnant, silent landlord Willie paints them, as if expressing an unseen ferocious world under the dull everyday desert.
All this would be an empty exercise if it weren't for Altman's engaging play with identity theft. It's a shaggy-dog story with clues that point to a conclusion we can't begin to guess, and it's interesting enough to reward us even with it all ends without an answer in sight.
Just watching the personalities clash is absorbing. Poor Millie is everyone's doormat, with her coordinated pastels, her skirt that always gets caught in the door of her Pinto, and her feeble attempts to "fit in" with her abusive neighbors. It's no better for her at work, where her lack of bite makes her an easy target for her uncaring, cruel employers (who seem unusually keen not to have their books examined).
Pinky starts out as such a ninny that we think she might be mentally challenged, like Gelsomina in La Strada. Then Altman starts playing tricks on us. Like Ripley in a Patricia Highsmith novel, Pinky appears to be appropriating Millie's identity, one detail at a time. Waking up from a coma in a hospital room, her personality changes 180 degrees, indicating a weird transformation or some kind of sinister trickery. Soon Pinky is manipulating Millie and throwing her weight around like Dirk Bogarde in The Servant. Both become involved with Willie's foolish faux-cowboy husband Edgar. Millie sincerely sets aside her life to help Pinky, and for her trouble loses her job and suffers indignities like getting her car "borrowed" without warning.
The end dissolves into a kind of limbo-nightmare, a new puzzle that somehow redeems the lack of a coherent ending. Our three women change roles and form a new female family (after the reported demise of Edgar) with new identities for all. Savant has pretty good BS antennae, and this particular artsy puzzle didn't come off as flip fakery. If you're going to make an oneiric bizarre poetic meditation on identity and plastic, interchangeable personalities, this isn't a bad way to go.
Criterion's DVD of 3 Women is another from their new deal with Fox, and it's a beauty. This show has only been available on the Fox channel for the longest time, and for quality the restored image rivals the print I saw when it was new. Gerald Busby's superior abstract music score makes a solid impression.
The release is at the high end of the Criterion price structure, which must be the cost of a new restoration, for the actual extras are limited. The best thing is the Robert Altman commentary in which he drifts and lectures and repeatedly tells us his movies are like paintings. But he also communicates his organic approach to filmmaking and convinces us of his efforts to be different and unique. He's especially good at sidetracking any impression that everything in his films is intentional or a result of directorial genius. He apparently sets up situations and moods where interesting things can happen. He finds actresses we can't take our eyes off of, and frees them to improvise within his loose guidelines. In this case the result is entirely satisfactory.
There are some trailers, tv spots, a still gallery and a nice liner essay by David Sterrit of the Christian Science Monitor. The TV spots strive to give the decidedly uncommercial movie a possible boxoffice hook, alluding to a non-existent murder mystery. Curiously, the poster for the film (here represented) is a graphic layout of the exact contents of the theatrical teaser - three still photos, with three quotes from Millie/Pinky's cryptic diary. The beautifully designed packaging and menus use more Bodhi Wind imagery. The disc producer is Criterion veteran Karen Stetler.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
3 Women rates: