DVD Review Of 3 Women
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/07
Robert Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women, which he wrote and directed from a dream he had, is not a bad film, but not a great film either. It is one of those films, ala Robert Browning, whose reach exceeds its grasp, but not in the good way. It is intended to work on a dream level, yet it is too realistic in its detail for much of the film to be seen as all dream, and not quite bizarre enough to be real dream, especially in its far too forced, and ultimately failed, ending.
Some critics have likened the film to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but this is a stretch. Even though that film is a bit overrated in the Bergman canon, 3 Women is nowhere in that league as a work of art: not as film, social commentary, nor work of symbolism. It has some elements in common with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, about another female misfit on the verge of insanity, as well as to the later, and far inferior, David Lynch mystery film Mulholland Drive, which was also about two women in a dreamy scenario.
The film follows the life of two lonely women who can only be called ‘losers’. Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) is an ugly worker at a California old folks’ health spa. She is unpopular, shunned by her co-workers- who ignore her blather despite her not realizing it, yet lives in a world of her own making, where all people like her, she is among the popular set, and life is made better by magazine ads and cooking recipes that involve all pre-processed foods and no real cooking ability. She is so clueless that every time she drives her mustard colored heap of a car her yellow skirt always gets caught in the door, and hangs outside. She also wears hideous yellow bathrobes with hoods to her apartment complex’s pool, yet thinks all the men desire her.
She becomes co-workers and roommates ($55 a month- those were the days!) with an even odder girl who comes to work at the spa, one day, and seems to lack a past, even though she claims to be from Texas, like Millie. Her name is also Mildred, although she goes by the nickname Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Pinky is a redhead who seems almost autistic (as she would be labeled these days), and is even less capable of existing in the world. So she starts to ape Millie, scheming to steal her life, even reading Millie’s diary. Pinky idolizes her, and feels Millie is ‘the most perfect person’ in the world. Millie does not really like Pinky, but it is obvious that Pinky’s sincere admiration makes Millie tolerate her, for somewhere inside Millie has to know what an oddball outcast she really is. There is a great deal of humor milked from this setup, but in no way is the film a comedy- not even a black comedy. The humor is used to lacerate the viewer with Millie’s sickness, and this is the key to the film- understanding Millie’s illness, for she is the central character and the whole film is about her. Everyone else may just be a part of ‘Millie’s World’, which is a world of dream and/or fantasy. One of the best pieces in the film is the relationship between Millie and a guy she likes in her building named Tom. She always pretends he’s after her, but that she won’t date him till he gets over his cold. He always fakes a cough when she walks by, and is otherwise oblivious or hostile to her. Yet, Pinky buys into Millie’s self-deceptions.
The third woman of the film is an older woman, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), who is pregnant, cold, silent, and paints bizarre man-hating pictures of pregnant gargoyle-like creatures on tiles and in pools, that seem to betray her bitterness, especially toward her no account husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier), a buffoonish would be macho man, and ex-stunt double in Western films, who is as big a joke to his sex as the two girls are to theirs, due to his penchant for guns, motorcycles, and beer. The two of them own the apartment complex, The Purple Sage- a sort of pre-Melrose Place Melrose Place for losers, the two girls share an apartment in, and also own a shitty bar, Dodge City, out in the desert, where macho loses race dirt bikes.
Other than Pinky, only Edgar seems to pay attention to Millie, and they carry on a fling. When Millie tells off Pinky, after tossing her out of her own bed, just to sleep with him, Pinky flings herself off the second floor balcony where they live, and into the pool. She is hospitalized with a concussion, and falls into a coma. Millie, filled with guilt, tracks down Pinky’s parents (John Cromwell and Ruth Nelson)- who seem quite old to be her parents. More realistically sharp humor ensues, until Pinky wakes up and declares they are not her parents, and she is now Mildred, not Pinky; even though she hated the name Mildred before her coma. She then turns herself into a parody of Millie- herself a parody of a glamour girl; seduces Edgar- even though she hates guns she learns to shoot to please him; mouths off, attracting the attention of the men who live at the apartment who shun Millie; and turns around her mousey life by a hundred and eighty degrees. She even starts writing in Millie’s diary as if she is Millie.
Then, Altman tanks the film with wan surrealism that fails. Edgar sneaks into the girls’ apartment one night when Willie is giving birth. The two girls rush over, Millie helps with the delivery and orders Pinky to get a doctor. Pinky freezes, and watches Millie deliver a stillborn boy- or does she? There are scenes where Willies paintings and roiling water (perhaps amniotic fluid?) overcome the images. Millie then slaps Pinky with her bloody hands for not getting a doctor as ordered, and the film suddenly ends, out of nowhere, with Pinky as the daughter of the proprietor of the bar, Millie in the role of artistic Willie, and Willie as grandma. Clearly the film is trying to show that all three women are merely aspects of one person- likely Millie, since Pinky is a younger Millie who shunned her name, and Willie is an older Millie whose name’s first name is an upside down M. This is foreshadowed by a scene in the hospital where we see Millie and two reflections of herself. The tie between Millie and Pinky, however, is the strongest, for as Millie steals her identity from glamour magazines, Pinky steals herself from Millie. Pinky also uses Millie’s Social Security number, punches her time card, and when Millie quits the spa, after they refuse to give Pinky her job back, Millie says, ‘We don’t need it.’ The film ends on this note, almost as enigmatically as the last few minutes and image of the Starchild in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, except for one fact- the audience is never as seduced by the narrative nor images in this film as they were in Kubrick’s film, for non sequitur poesy simply does not work when tacked on the end of a satire based upon grotesquerie.
The DVD by The Criterion Collection has an essay by film critic David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor, a large stills gallery with the art of Bodhi Wind, whose work the Willie character is supposed to be painting, two vintage 1970s type film trailers and two television spots which make the film seem like a standard mystery/thriller, and a film commentary by Altman, in which he drifts a bit, and has long silent pauses, but in which he conversationally draws the viewer into scenes and digressions. The film is in anamorphic widescreen, at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Duvall won the Best Actress Award for 1977 at the Cannes Film Festival and from the Los Angeles Film Critics, while Spacek got the same from the New York Film Critics Circle. The soundtrack by Gerald Busby- a mixture of woodwinds and funeral dirge, and the artwork by Wind are intriguing.
In the film commentary Altman states that, aside from his initial dream, he just winged most of the film, with no pre-scripted dialogue, and it shows, even without Altman acknowledging it. Altman never answers the questions his film raises, but the reason why the film fails is not because questions such as why Pinky was warned of the twins (although, for too obvious reasons), why she gave her employers Millie’s Social Security number, or why the three women end up as zombies at the end, are not answered; nor even that Altman does not have the answers; but because he did not even care to think they could have any purpose. The film descends into anomy, which Altman weakly defends, in his commentary, as being part of the ‘organic process’, or the film being like a ‘watercolor painting’; although he never extrapolates on these comparisons. He also takes the old copout that the film, and the ending, are better if felt than understood. Even if true, which it’s not, it’s a fairly lame defense, for the ending fails not only narrative- even if we accept the whole prior film as a dream, but it fails symbolically for it’s so trite yet tries to be hermetic, to the point that all interest is lost in what it ‘really means’?
He does however make some excellent points about art, in general. He says that the Oscars are really awards for the best advertising campaigns and not the best film, and decries the notion of ‘artistic theft’ in film, stating that it is sour grapes, and he is flattered when younger filmmakers ‘steal’ from him, just as he has ‘stolen’ from others. Part of the reason the film has garnered such a high reputation is because it was never released on VHS nor DVD until Criterion’s version in 2004. Yet, it has much in common with Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, another bizarre film that is almost beyond quantifying on a good-bad quality axis.
Despite its oneiric pretensions, and some pluses, the film, as a whole, never fully comes together, and ends as a pale muddle of Freudian nonsense, and pseudo-symbolism; such as Pinky’s death and rebirth in the pool, that, while interesting, at times, is best described as that misfit beast- ‘the noble failure.’ Robert Altman has always been a hit and miss director, and while 3 Women is a miss, it’s not as noxious a miss as his 1990 monstrosity Vincent & Theo, if only because one can connect with its bizarre characters on an emotional level that could never be done with the doomed Van Gogh brothers. And, unlike Michelangelo Antonioni’s best films, which often seem to end not at their chronological ends, this film’s ending is not the work of a carefully placed artist’s inventiveness, just stylized randomness rationalized after the fact.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.}
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