AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW ACADEMY
RUNNING TIME: 124 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Pinky Rose, a timid and awkward young woman, begins a job at a health spa for the elderly in a small California desert town. There, she becomes enamoured of Millie Lammoreaux, a confident and talkative employee whom most people tend to ignore. The two become friends and, in spite of their stark personality differences, decide to become roommates. Pinky moves in with Millie at the Purple Sage Apartments, owned by a has-been cowboy, Edgar Hart, and his wife Willie, a mysterious pregnant woman who paints striking and unsettling murals. Pinky’s hero worship of Millie soon starts to evolve into something very strange…
3 Women is quite an extraordinary picture, though it helped me immensely that I hardly knew anything about it. I’ve been watching movies avidly for about thirty years, but my experience of director Robert Altman has up to now only been of his best known works like MASH, Nashville, The Player and, the film that was up to now my favourite, the wonderful film noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye, also released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy a while back. Words like weird, surreal, dreamlike, ambiguous and disturbing are not at all words I would generally use to describe his work, but 3 Women, a film which totally and utterly surprised me [see what I mean – if I had known more about it, the surprise would have been considerably lessened] is all those and more. I would even go so far as to call it a horror film [and I certainly wouldn’t have given it a ‘PG’ certificate!] – I’m not sure that Altman would have liked to hear that – but this movie really got under my skin and towards the end I found it very unsettling even if wasn’t clear what was really going on! A small amount of research indicates that Altman did make some similar films at this point in his career, and actually the more I think about it his hugely underrated Popeye was rather unusual, but 3 Women is not at all a film I would have guessed had come from Altman if I hadn’t known, My initial guess would have probably been Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch!
Perhaps unsurprising to learn once you’ve watched the film is that 3 Women actually begun life as a dream by its director. According to some, he nipped into the office of 20th Century Fox head Alan Ladd Jnr. during a trip to the airport the day after he’d had the dream and made the deal for the film within a few minutes. Oh the Golden Age that was the 70’s in Hollywood, when crazy ideas for movies were quickly agreed on and crazy movies were easily made, not like today when such a project like 3 Women would be an independent production if it were made at all! Altman and Patricia Resnick then wrote a 50 page draft largely without dialogue, the plan being that most of the words would largely be thought up on the day and even improvised by the cast, Shelley Duvall ad libbed nearly all of her own lines as well as creating much of her character and designing her apartment. Janice Rule though had nearly all of her dialogue cut out. Shot in sequence mostly at a desert resort in Palm Springs, the film was barely seen and didn’t even appear on video, possibly due to the distributors of this and three other Altman films not negotiating music rights for video releases of movies which, due to their obscurity, they never expected to get released anyway. TV showings created a bit of a cult around the film though, which eventually got a DVD release in 2004.
The title sequence immediately has a strange effect with the camera moving along blurry images of bizarre, rather sexual murals of mythical creatures as odd ripples move up and down the frame. We zoom into one picture and find ourselves in the swimming pool of a spa looking very closely at the legs of an old person before zooming out to show the whole pool. After this the first half of 3 Women is easily the most ‘normal’ half, and actually it moves extremely slowly, perhaps too slowly for some [though I was riveted myself, there are definitely a few moments I could have done without], but Altman does a really clever thing – he somehow creates a palpable feeling of unease without seeming to do anything except for the occasional bits of score composer Gerald Busby’s atonal symphonic noodlings. Of course we do keep returning to those darn murals, a sort of ferocious, even demonic world existing beneath the sleepy desert environment that our characters exist beneath or even alongside it, and it struck me that many of the pictures seemed to consist of three monstrous women and one monstrous man. Pinky immediately struck me as much like Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, a terribly insecure young woman who seems to have had little experience of life. She begins to attach herself to Millie because to her Millie represents everything that she wants to be. She fails to notice that Millie is a façade who isn’t actually popular at all and constantly makes up stories because in reality people tend to ignore her. The picture all seems to take place in the spa for a while until we relocate to a neighbouring Western-style bar and meet Janice, the woman doing the paintings. She hardly says a thing, but is immediately a very uncanny presence.
The movie coasts along leisurely as we really get a feel for the spa, the apartment block, and the saloon where the men who live in the apartment block practice shooting around the back and ride around in motorbikes. There’s even some humour, like when Pinky drinks a beer for the first time by putting salt on it, blowing it so some of it spills, then consuming the whole pint in one go. Then Millie throws Pinky out of their apartment when Millie’s about to go to bed with Janice’s husband, Pinky tries to commit suicide, and she awakes in hospital. This is where the film really becomes weird and rather creepy, beginning with Pinky’s parents turning up at the hospital and Pinky not knowing who they are. Now if you decide to buy this outstanding piece of cinema then I really think it’s best that you be like me and not know much of what is going to happen next, so I’m not going to go into successive events. I will say if you know a certain Ingmar Bergman film, a certain Nicholas Roeg film or a certain David Lynch film, than much of what happens is along similar lines, but I wouldn’t dream of describing the climactic events except that they are hard to describe anyway and in any case your interpretation would probably be totally different to mine. Yes, the movie goes totally off the rails, but in a good way, a way that seems oddly logical considering the recurring motifs of the film and its dream-like feel, as well as being thrilling because we are watching a filmmaker, helped immensely by performers of the highest quality, really try to push the boundaries of storytelling and the cinematic experience.
The camera of Charles Rosher Jnr. tends to slowly drift around and across scenes, adding to the dreamy haze, while many scenes have the film overexposed to de-saturate the colour, are shot through water and/or have that ripple effect, like a wave, move up and down. An actual dream sequence is one of the best I’ve ever seen, mixing shots from earlier in the film, some we haven’t seen [a couple were actually from deleted scenes], the murals and the water to create something profoundly disturbing yet it’s hard to work out actually why. Then there are the very precise production design and colour schemes, such as Millie being largely identified with yellow. As to what the whole thing is about, Altman scatters many seemingly disparate clues throughout the film. There seems to be a strong feminist element, a Freudian element, a ‘birth’ and even ‘rebirth’ theme, a satire on consumerism, the ‘old’ meeting the ‘new’ – even seemingly ‘out there’ suggestions like alternate realities. Considering how the film was ‘born’, it’s possible that even Altman couldn’t explain everything, and what the story means to you is, as I’ve said, probably very different to what the story means to me….yet we could both be right.
Spacek and Duvall are just incredible, especially in the second half when they have to undergo transformations that most actresses would really struggle with portraying convincingly, but then everyone is good in this film, like Robert Fortier as Janice’s husband, once a stuntman on a TV western show and now a beer-soaked loser who still sometimes thinks he’s in a Western. 3 Women really shows Altman to be a bold and diverse filmmaker. It will probably confuse, bemuse and even frustrate you, but Altman once said that the film was to be felt rather than understood, and I think if you approach it with that state of mind you will find it extremely rewarding. And one day, when I’ve watched it a couple more times, I may very well post another article about it explaining what I personally think it could be about….though I’ll probably read it a year later and disagree with everything in it.
Arrow’s Blu-ray of 3 Women looks excellent to me. There has been talk that that the restoration, done by Fox, isn’t faithful to the look of the film. I can’t comment on that since I’ve never seen it before. Taken on its own, it looks perfectly fine with very good depth and detail. The disc loses an Altman commentary which was on the Criterion disc and would have been great to hear, but its replacements – an archival Duvall interview and a very lengthy talk about the film by one of my favourite movie writers [I don’t often agree with him, but always understand his viewpoint] David Thompson – more than compensate.
* New 4K digital restoration by Twentieth Century Fox
* Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* New video interview with David Thompson, editor of ‘Altman on Altman’ and producer of the BBC’s ‘Robert Altman in England’
* Archive interview with Shelley Duvall from the Cannes Film Festival – the actress describes working with Altman, his methods and how she started acting
* Galleries featuring behind-the-scenes photos, the Cannes Film Festival press conference and promotional images
* Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh
* Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Jenkins and excerpts from Altman on Altman, illustrated with original stills