PrintE-mail Written by John Townsend

Any attempt to fully understand Robert Altman’s 3 Women will be met with unavoidable and frustrating futility. Allowing it to simply wash over you becomes the only option as there is nothing that can truly prepare you for the absurd viewing experience delivered or the dream-like plane (more on that later) that the film exists in.

Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a young woman who recently moved to California and takes a job in what appears to be a watery rehabilitation centre for the sun-kissed geriatrics of the area. From the outset it is clear there is something in her personality that is a little off; a mischievous, almost playful streak that she may or may not be entirely conscious of, but also a sense of great naivety. At the centre she becomes unhealthily attached to Millie (Shelley Duvall), an overly upbeat loner who constantly and chirpily imparts herself into other people’s conversations and social groups, often with little or no attention still being paid to her. After moving in together, Millie introduces Pinky to her local bar where she encounters Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant, surreal artist with a gun-toting, self-proclaimed gigolo for a partner. Eventually the women discover a strange connection that will ultimately benefit them all.

Nothing in what is probably Altman’s most unpredictable and bizarre work is as it seems, with character personalities and their entwined relationships fluctuating from one scene to the next. One moment Millie is berating Pinky for being a child-like bind on her and for ruining a dinner party that was never going to happen. Later the roles reverse, with Pinky gaining confidence and engaging with the people Millie has been shunned by time and again, pushing the latter awkwardly further to the periphery. From the outset Altman challenges his audience to keep up, to try and understand what the auteur director is trying to say. The interesting thing is there is no indication the director fully understood the concept himself, even admitting in the past that some of the film’s complexities remain a mystery even to him. Much of this confusion stems from the film’s origins, with the initial idea appearing to Altman in a dream and with production commencing before an ending had really been considered.

Running themes of birth and rebirth typified by the reference to and existence of water throughout are clear, with the final act being both shocking and strangely inevitable given what has gone before. What immediately follows is not, and while it may add some justification to the character’s arcs it still feels a little convenient, however bizarre it might be.

Horror tropes are present, with the strongest coming from many of Duvall’s brilliantly disconcerting reaction shots, but Altman draws back from delivering a truly scary film, preferring confused ambiguity over outright mania.

Impossible to classify by traditional means, memorable and a film that almost demands repeat viewing, but is 3 Women actually an enjoyable experience? Bemused respect will be found in the unfaltering performances and the confidence of a director at his peak, who at the time clearly pandered to no-one, but a great deal will still depend upon how you approach the film. An open mind is essential.

Special Features: New interview with Altman specialist, David Thompson / Archive interview with Shelley Duvall / Gallery / Trailer / Collector’s booklet



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