Dir.: Robert Altman (1925-2006)
Cast: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
USA Drama, 124 min.
Robert Altman despised Hollywood with the true hatred of a renegade and claimed that the idea of 3 WOMEN came to him in a dream. Whilst one has to be careful with statements like this, the film itself is a free association on the topic of female identities, leaving ratio and conventional narrative behind. Having been called the American answer to Bergman’s Persona, does Altman no justice; the point is that 3 Women is a free flowing exercise in psychological symbolism, avoiding any classification in itself.
Set in a spa for seniors in the Californian desert near Palm Springs, 3 Women begins with a straightforward narrative: Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall) a physical therapist in the spa, has to introduce newcomer Pinky Rose (Spacek) to her duties. Millie is a walking/talking ‘Cosmopolitan’ woman, full of witticisms and superficial knowledge which she sprouts continuously. She sees herself as God’s given gift to men, overlooking the fact that she is rejected at a worrying speed. It is therefore a surprise, that Pinky, fresh from a Texan small town, chooses Millie as a role model, moving in with her and becoming her true sycophant, whilst writing like a young teenager in her diary. The third woman is Willie Hart (Rule), who is pregnant and paints disturbing murals on the apartment buildings and pool – owned by her husband Edgar (Fortier) – were Pinky and Millie live. Edgar is an ex-stuntman, now married more to the beer bottle than his wife, who is more or less silent. When Millie throws Pinky out, to sleep with Edgar, Pinky jumps into the pool, trying to kill herself. When she regains consciousness, she and the film change. Whilst Pinky becomes a much more functional version of Millie (she even seduces Edgar), the mood changes and structure and narrative become blurred, the three women seemingly becoming one, after Willie has a traumatic stillbirth.
Starting as a biting caricature of Californian (and Hollywood), Altman changes gear in towards the end. The images become languid, the three women seem to glide towards each other. It is more than female solidarity which is played out here: we are entering a new sphere. Altman lets the audience decide what to make of it all, just offering an alternative to what has gone on before. It is an invitation to cut loose from the American dream of crass materialism and superficial uniformity, to find something in ourselves, which we share with others. This way Altman sets himself apart from mainstream cinema in form and content, without setting a clearly defined alternative. But, like Bodhi Wind’s murals, the emotional journey which the three, very different women undertake, is enigmatic and mystical. 3 Women is an invitation to step outside the constraints society imposes. AS
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