Saturday, November 21, 2009

3 WOMEN 1977

Films that invite repeat viewings are my favorite. If the complexities of plot and character are authentic (and not simply incomprehensibility posing as profundity), each viewing unearths new pleasures and a deeper understanding of the film’s themes.

Robert Altman’s 3 Women is such a film, and it is, quite literally, a dream.
Altman claimed that much of the basic structure of this truly mesmerizing discourse on identity-theft came to him in a dream and there is little reason to doubt that assertion given that much of “3 Women” unfolds in the same shifting rhythms and fluid, non-linear logic of a dream half-remembered.

Altman regular, Shelley Duvall, plays Millie Lammoreaux, the Palm Springs femme non-fatale of the Purple Sage Apartments: a garishly mauve modernist complex that looks to have sprouted out of the ground like a cactus flower in the flat, arid landscape of the desert.
Millie is an attendant at a spa for the elderly and fancies herself an irresistible man-trap.
Oblivious to the fact that to most everyone she is either invisible or insufferable, Millie floats on a lemon-colored cloud of delusion fueled by romantic longing and women’s magazine clich├ęs.
The lone dissenting voice is that of Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), the childlike, slightly spooky new spa employee who sees in Millie, “The most perfect person I’ve ever met.”
If Millie’s personality is over determined, Pinky’s is as unformed as an infant’s (she has so little in the way of history or possessions that she could be a visitor from another planet). But since she is the only person to ever reflect back to Millie her own image of herself, the two enter into a mutually advantageous roommate/friendship relationship that has the “worldly” Millie giving the unrefined Pinky lessons in life. Lessons she learns all to well, as it turns out.
"Tickled Pink & Lemon Satin"
The 3rd Woman of the title is Willie (Janice Rule), the hugely pregnant, mostly silent, artist who spends all of her time painting cryptic, luridly violent murals of anthropomorphic reptiles.

Willie is married to the hyper-macho Edgar (Robert Fortier), a swaggering, womanizing, former TV stunt double (“He knows Hugh O’Brian!”) with whom she shares ownership of The Purple Sage Apartments and the town’s lone hot-spot, Dodge City: a run-down, western-themed bar/ghost town where off-duty cops come to drink beer, shoot guns and ride dirt bikes.
It’s with the introduction of the almost spectral character of Willie that 3 Women begins to take shape as something grounded increasingly less in reality, yet something more chilling and unsettling than fantasy. As the ad copy on the poster read: “1 woman became 2, 2 women became 3, 3 women became 1.”

This one is a true original. There is something so fascinating in Altman’s use of magic realism in exploring the twin phenomenon of personality and identity as things both contagious and fluid. He creates characters and a world that is real but jarringly off-kilter (not in that self-conscious, Cohen Brothers way, mercifully), and in the finely observed details, 3 Women is often heartbreakingly funny while being downright eerie.

Shelley Duvall gives one of the best performances of the 70s, and certainly what I consider the best of her career. She can take a character comprised almost exclusively of derisible (if not absurd) characteristics and finds the humanity within. Though audiences are encouraged to laugh at Millie’s ever-thwarted attempts at maintaining an air of sophisticated insouciance at all times (try as she might she can’t seem to prevent her flowing skirts from getting caught in her car door) one can’t help but feel empathy for her poignant quest to mean something to herself.

The recurring motifs of water, mirrors and other reflective surfaces gives 3 Women a hallucinatory quality served well by the haunting score and the dried-out Palm Springs locations.

Pinky - “I wonder what it’s like to be twins…do you think they know which one they are?”
“Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits, perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently.”
Ingmar Bergman - Fanny and Alexander (1979)

For years Woody Allen has been knocking himself out superficially channeling Ingmar Bergman and here Robert Altman hits a bullseye his first time out with this incontestably American nod to Bergman’s Persona.

I suppose that what I have always related to in 3 Women is how it so poetically speaks of the need to connect and the basic wish to be acknowledged. Looking at the film through the eyes of the college kid I was when the film was released, I know I recognized a bit of my own pretensions, my need for self-invention, my wish to remain childlike, and my longing to care for and be cared for by someone. Seeing it now, I am stunned at how keen its observations are and how gentle the film is with its damaged characters. It strikes me as one of Altman’s most humane works and is hands-down my favorite of all of his films.
Pinky- "I had a bad dream"
Millie- "Dreams can't hurt you."

Copyright © Ken Anderson