3 Women Review


In a small town in the Texas desert, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) works at a rehabiliation home for the elderly. Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) turns up for a job at the same home, and soon becomes Millie's roommate. But Pinky is not what she seems...

The story goes that 3 Women came to Robert Altman in a dream: not necessarily the whole film, but certainly the desert setting and the two leading actresses, who happily were available to play the roles. In short order, the film was funded and in production. The result is one of the strangest of Altman's long run of studio-funded films in the decade of the 1970s, yet also one of the most compelling. It’s hard to discuss this film without spoilers, so if you want to avoid them, please skip to “The Disc” below.

Altman was forty-five when MASH was released in 1970. The great success of that film enabled him to make fourteen feature films in the next ten years, none of them matching that commercial success, some, such as Nashville, equalling it in acclaim. Others puzzled audiences and critics though gained cult followings and have been re-evaluated over the years, such as for example, The Long Goodbye, also released on Blu-ray in the Arrow Academy line. Others still, especially later in the decade, were barely released and are not now easy to see (and I haven't seen them) but may well bear another look. His influence on younger directors, for example Paul Thomas Anderson, has been profound. Those fourteen films are in a variety of genres, to which Altman often takes a subversive approach. They range from large-scale ensemble pieces (Nashville, A Wedding) to chamber pieces such as Images and the film under review. 3 Women shares many of the characteristics of Altman's other work from the 1970s, including the willingness to allow input from the cast: Duvall wrote much of her lengthy dialogue herself, though Altman is the only credited writer. (Patricia Resnick, credited as production assistant, wrote an initial treatment.) Although it is a small-scale film, and for much of its running time a two-hander, it was shot in Scope (2.35:1), something it shares with all Altman's 70s features except Thieves Like Us, and the use of the zoom lens to adjust compositions and the multi-layered soundtrack (though much less overlapping dialogue, given the smaller cast) are Altman characteristics.

The nearest genre 3 Women falls into is the psychological drama, the subset which involves the breakdown and merging of personalities, with one person taking on attributes of the other, and vice versa. Given that this involves two women, one particularly noteworthy and influential example, made eleven years earlier, is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. A male equivalent would be Performance, which adds an element of gender fluidity to the mix. In 3 Women this merger takes the film to the borders of the fantasy genre, not one Altman is normally associated with. (Brewster McCloud borders on fantasy from another direction. Quintet is SF, and was one of Altman’s greatest commercial failures of the decade.) At first Pinky (who, not insignificantly, has the real name Mildred, though like much about her, that’s open to question). She seems a blank, almost childlike figure. She seems to be seeking an identity, early on following and matching the movements of a pair of twins before latching on to Millie. Her parents, when they appear, seem far too old to have begotten her. (They’re played by Phyllis Nelson and John Cromwell, early seventies and late eighties respectively, while Spacek, twenty-six at the time, was more than capable of passing as someone much younger than her actual age – she played a teenager in the title role of the previous year’s Carrie. Duvall is actually only five months older than Spacek.) By contrast, Millie is garrulous to a fault, speaking a lot without saying anything very much, her worldview seemingly informed by the magazines she reads. But after an accidental near-drowning, things change. Pinky takes on more and more of Millie’s identity, in a symbiotic if not parasitic relationship with her. She sleeps with Millie’s boyfriend and starts to write in her diary.

Yet the film is called 3 Women because there is a third. This is Willie (note the rhyming name), played by Janice Rule. Willie wanders through the town and the film, silent for the majority of the running time, pregnant, painting the murals we see on screen (actually the work of Bodhi Wind). By the end of the film, the three women are in a symbiotic relationship, a grandmother, mother and daughter in spirit if not in fact.

There is a reason why we look back on American cinema of the 1970s as a lost golden age. 3 Women begins with the 20th Century Fox searchlight logo, but it’s hard to imagine a film of such an arthouse bent (add a measured pace to the unconventionalities above) being bankrolled by a major studio nowadays, however low the budget or however high the director’s reputation. Part of this was due to Altman’s good relationship with studio head Alan Ladd Jr. By 1977, the seeds of this type of filmmaking’s destruction had already been sown: the blockbuster had begun with Jaws two years earlier and in the same year as 3 Women Fox would release Star Wars. At the end of the decade, several expensive flops would curtail directors’ independence. For Altman that was Popeye, following several later films which were barely released, and he continued his career in the next decade as an independent.

By now, Altman’s films were largely dependent on critical approval rather than commercial appeal, so the major international film festivals had become important to him. 3 Women played in competition at Cannes and won Shelley Duvall the Award for Best Actress (shared with Monique Mercure for the French-Canadian film J.A. Martin photographe). Duvall also was the Best Actress of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association and was nominated for a BAFTA (losing the latter to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall). Meanwhile, Spacek won Best Supporting Actress in the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards. Those acting nods are certainly well deserved: Altman was about the only filmmaker who knew what to do with Shelley Duvall and she gives possibly her finest performance here. Spacek was one of the foremost American screen actresses of the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s and gives a many-levelled performance that's the equal of Duvall's. This was the only time she worked with Altman: she had come to his attention via her role in Welcome to L.A. directed by Altman's protégé Alan Rudolph, which Altman had produced. However, 3 Women drew a complete blank at the Oscars. It's a film that will fascinate Altman aficionados and alienate the non-converted.


The Disc

Arrow release 3 Women on Blu-ray as part of their Arrow Academy line.

As mentioned above, 3 Women was shot in Scope, with anamorphic lenses, and Arrow's Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 2.35:1. I have seen the film once before, which was a 35mm showing nearly twenty-five years ago, so finer details of this film's look have gone from my memory, though this Blu-ray does broadly resemble what I remember. Chuck Rosher's camerawork de-emphasises primary colours and gives the film a soft hazy look, contributing its dreamlike ambience. So do several shots through water. Altman's characteristic use of the zoom lens also causes some shifts in focus. There's certainly grain, but it's natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is the original mono and is clear and well-balanced between the dialogue and Gerald Busby's atonal flute-dominated score. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, and I spotted no errors in them.

The first extra is an archive interview with Shelley Duvall, from Cannes in 1977 (5:45). She goes into some detail about Altman's filmmaking practice and his request for input from both lead actresses: Duvall wrote most of her character's monologues.

The second item is new: a piece by David Thompson on 3 Women (37:07). This is a companion piece to the one on Arrow's Long Goodbye disc, putting the film into the context of Altman's career, in particular his long run of studio-financed films in the 1970s and going into detail about 3 Women itself. There are spoilers, so watch this after the feature.

Next up is a stills gallery, subdivided into three sections. "Behind the scenes" comprises sixty-two images, both colour and black and white, mostly on-set photos with some of Altman's storyboards. There are also four shots from Cannes and sixteen colour publicity stills. These last come from French- and German-language releases of the film, with the title being given as 3 femmes and 3 Frauen respectively.

Finally on the disc is the theatrical trailer (1:27).

Arrow's booklet runs to twenty-four pages, of which I received a PDF copy for review. Most of it is devoted to an essay by David Jenkins. "Women in the Dunes", which comes with a spoiler warning. It does give an interpretation of the film which is more than most open to your own, and ties it in not just with Persona but also Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating and Le pont du nord, two other films about among other things the shifting and somewhat fantasticated relationship between two women. Oddly, Jenkins refers to Spacek's character as "Pinkie Hart", not "Pinky Rose". Also in the booklet is an extract from Altman on Altman in which Altman talking about the inspiration and the making of the film. Also in the booklet are film credits (which misspell Sissy Spacek's name) and disc credits, notes on the transfer, and stills.

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Robert Altman's strange dreamlike 1977 film gets a Blu-ray release from Arrow Academy.


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