Criterion // 1977 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 21st, 2011
1 woman became 2 / 2 women became 3 / 3 women became 1.
"What is this place? Disneyland?!"
Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) has just moved to California from a small town in rural Texas. She's landed a job working at an assisted living facility, where she meets the chatty, somewhat self-absorbed Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall, The Shining). The two strike up a friendship of sorts, and soon Pinky finds herself moving into Millie's apartment and splitting the rent. However, after a tift between the two girls takes a nasty turn, both women find their lives dramatically altered in strange, unexpected ways.
It can be persuasively argued that the window of time between the late 1960s and late 1970s represents the most adventurous, wildly experimental era in the history of cinema (at least in terms of narrative and thematic content). It was an era in which distinctive filmmakers like Robert Altman thrived, as they were given often free reign to explore ambitious ideas. During the early years of his career, Altman threw out one great film after another at lightning speed: within seven years, he had delivered M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Images, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, and California Split. Altman was on such a roll (despite the costly speed bump that was Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson) that he managed to convince 20th Century Fox to greenlight 3 Women before he even had a completed script.
If the movie was rushed into production and thrown together in a seemingly haphazard fashion, perhaps it's because Altman felt a need to commit his vision to film before it faded. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, though in this case the word "idea" encompasses the casting, the story, the tone, and the look of the movie. Altman even told the executives at Fox he would probably make the film without even finishing the screenplay and wasn't sure how it would end, but his passion and established skill represented all the persuading they required. He handed his fragmented ideas over to writer Patricia Resnick (she would pen another peculiar tale for Altman a couple years later with Quintet), who in turn arranged them into a 50-page treatment which Altman used as a springboard while shooting.
The resulting picture is one of cinema's greatest "dream movies," employing nocturnal logic as it wanders into increasingly surreal territory. Creating a movie that feels like a dream might sound like an easy task, as dreams aren't subject to the restrictive rules of reality or traditional storytelling. Even so, actually capturing the feeling that everything has a very specific significance you can't quite put your finger on is immensely tricky. Altman pulls off that particular feat with aplomb, diving into scenes which are incomprehensible from a logical perspective but feel just right. I don't know what the ending means, and yet I do. Making something simultaneously feel impenetrably vague and deeply significant without making that same thing feel pretentious, empty, or exasperating is an accomplishment worthy of vigorous applause. Others have done it -- I'd make a case for David Lynch's Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream, and Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, though your mileage may very -- but none quite so skillfully as Altman.
The first hour of 3 Women is quite straightforward, taking its time introducing us to the characters and allowing us to become familiar with their idiosyncrasies. Duvall and Spacek are allowed the freedom to create, and they give characters which feel so much more fully developed than most. Millie is the sort of girl who seems eager to talk to everyone, but most ignore her and some even openly mock her. She seems oblivious to much of this, continuing about her day in a state of unfazed cheer. Pinky is the one girl who hangs onto every word Millie says, and yet Millie seems dismissive of her. Pinky's undivided attention causes her to look inferior in Millie's eyes; a view perhaps rooted in Millie's fractured notion that people who so clearly dislike her are actually her friends. Many of Duvall and Spacek's scenes together are warm and funny, yet they are often underscored with atonal notes which suggest something sinister on the horizon. And the third woman? That would be Willie (Janice Rule, The Swimmer), a humorless, sad-eyed pregnant woman who says nothing and spends her days painting terrifying murals. Her significance is late to reveal itself, but the fact that the title places her on equal ground with Pinky and Willie is a clue to the emphasis Altman places on symbolic storytelling.
At one point, it's revealed that Pinky's real name is Mildred. Naturally, that's also Millie's birth name. It's the most explicit of Altman drops that these women are connected, though the manner in which they are is perhaps the film's most tantalizing mystery. Are they all parts of a three-piece human-shaped puzzle? Is Millie really Mildred and Mildred really Willie and Willie really Millie? Is the story a dream of one of these characters? If so, which one? Is it the combined dreams of all three women? Which scene belongs to which? Altman concludes his tale with a surreal masterstroke; one of those rare "Rosebud" endings that supplies so much and yet so little, in a manner which is cathartic and leaves one pondering its depths long afterwards. This is not a film to be understood in a traditional sense. Like a great work of modern art, 3 Women is meant to be considered rather than explained.
3 Women arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. This is one of those '70s flicks which has always looked a little dingy, but Criterion has restored it to an impressive degree. It's also one of Altman's most visually striking films, and benefits from robust colors, considerably improved detail and a notable absence of scratches or flecks. However, there are a few instances of minor print damage and some moments of noise during a few darker scenes. The LPCM 1.0 audio is excellent, spotlighting an unnerving score with strength and clarity. As with many of Altman's films, this one has a number of noteworthy lines which are barely heard in the background or mumbled under a character's breath. As such, it's valuable to have a track as clean and crisp as this. The mix picks up on every little nuance and allows viewers to fully appreciate the details the film captures. A limited supplemental package is ported over from the DVD release: a wonderful commentary with Altman (one of the director's best solo tracks), some trailers and TV spots, a photo gallery, and a leaflet (as opposed to the usual booklet) offering an essay by David Sterritt.
3 Women remains one of Robert Altman's most experimental and rewarding efforts. Here's hoping Criterion brings more of his work to hi-def soon.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Trailers/TV Spots
* Photo Gallery