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3 Women (Robert Altman) 1977

 

    There are those who will react negatively to the abundant symbolism of Robert Altmanís dreamlike fugue 3 Women, since the pieces in this puzzle movie havenít been fashioned to fit together perfectly, and there are those who will relish the experience of simply playing the game, and not care about the end result. Iím definitely one of the latter types, and found its challenges easy to embrace. Altman claims that the filmís inspiration came to him in a dream, and that feels appropriate even itís a bit of an embellishment, since he creates here otherworldly tone sets in from the start, and puts us in an associative, detached state where we are more willing to accept and less likely to question. The first shots of the movie are cast behind an undulating wave of water, and throughout the film, the image of water is used to represent entrance into a dream state. Early on, when Shelly Duvallís Millie guides Sissy Spacekís Pinky into a wading pool, they are literally submerged into that dream world, and they donít seem to come out for the rest of the film.

 

    There are hints before this scene that point toward what Altmanís after here, but it would take an unusually astute viewer to pick up on them. In the opening moments of the movie, the hopelessly meek Pinky, who has just relocated to the filmís Southern California setting from Texas, can be seen watching and eavesdropping on the women who work at the health spa where she works. Since weíre watching Pinky as she is observing others, weíre implicated as viewers since weíre voyeuristically watching her. Since decoding the movieís symbolism requires an active viewer, it creates an unshakable feeling that weíre asking the same questions that Altman is. It feels as if weíre working through the movieís mystery at the same pace as the director. When no one else is looking at Pinky, we see still are, and we get to see her behaving differently than she does in front of others. She blows bubbles in her Coke and does wheelies in a wheelchair. From the first reel, Altman is trying to examine what it is that lays under the exterior that women project. Not surprisingly, what we find is less comforting than we might like.

 

    The characters in the movie seem to talk as if they have wholly unchecked ids. At first, when we observe this behavior in Pinky and Millie, we take it as nervousness, since the two have just met, but it continues to extend beyond them. Everyone from the fascist supervisors at the spa and the hospital to the openly rude neighbors in Millieís apartment complex seems to speak their mind just a tad too freely to be believable. The movie seems to be set in some alternate universe where peopleís interior thoughts just ribbon out of them in conversation. The movie might not have a conventional narrative, but it has a certain something about it thatís amazingly entrancing, and whatever else it might be, itís certainly not clichťd. Thereís a surprisingly lively sense of humor tossed in with the psychodrama, and Altman never lets things get too heavy or pretentious, even as his inflates his simple gender politics beyond their usefulness. Better yet, he uses most of his humorous touches to further enhance our understanding of the characters.  He mocks the filmís dominant male by having him brag about his status as ex-stunt double to an actor who played a cowboy. He underlines the social inadequacy of Pinky and Millie by showing their elaborate and inane preparations for a dinner party.

 

   3 Women is marked with a distinctly dusty haziness that suggests there are always a few layers of distortion between what weíre seeing and reality. Altman often shoots through objects, such as a chain link fence, a soap scum covered mirror, an aquarium, and a screen door, so we never feel comfortable taking an image at face value. The spare flute solos add to the sense of mystery. Often, instead of cutting at the end of a scene, he uses a dissolve, adding to the dreamy allure of the movie. The images flow into each other, and soon begin to recall each other as we progress (regress?) deeper into the minds of the titular characters. If we feel at first unable to express what it is about some of the shots and imagery in the film that feels off, by the end of the film, we feel justified in feeling that way, even if we still canít quite explain it. Altmanís style and subject here is an obvious predecessor to David Lynchís Mulholland Dr., but it also recalls Bergmanís Persona, and it ranks alongside either in the pantheon of great films about dreams.

* * * *

07-03-02

Jeremy Heilman