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USA 1977
Directed by
Robert Altman
125 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

3 Women

Most films depend on a story with a discernible thematic meaning – love conquers all, crime doesn’t pay  - and so on. 3 Women has story but what it means it far from apparent.  Which makes sense as Robert Altman, never in any case one to conform to mainstream conventions, claimed that the core image of two women in a desert setting came to him in a dream (apparently Bergman's Persona,1966, was also an influence)

The main character, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), is a self-preoccupied young woman who works in a hot spring health spa in the Californian desert. Although projecting confidence and believing herself irresistible to men, she is ignored by everyone except Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a teenager who comes to work in the resort.  Pinky develops a crush on Millie but when she moves into the latter’s apartment she become obsessive with disastrous results.  

Although there is an actual dream sequence late in the film, for the most part Altman, who co-wrote with Patricia Resnick, plays it straight never allowing us identify the film as mystery, thriller or horror through the use of genre tropes or narrative developments. Rather, he maintains a mundane surface that is slightly disturbed by his odd characters, the deludedly narcissistic Millie and the strangely eager Pinky, the allusive visuals, notably the prominent motif of water and the sexually-charged murals of Willie (Janice Rule), the barely-speaking third woman referred to by the title, as well as by Gerald Busby's haunting flute music which recalls a similar use in the period films of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. Although we cannot see where this going, ultimately the effect is not dissimilar to Polanski's Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – a sense of the everyday warped out of alignment and into a different reality.

Like any dream, the meaning of all this is a matter of interpretation. The film’s title and its coda suggests that that each of the characters is an aspect of the female archetype but there is no sense that Altman is trying to embody any kind of thesis.  It’s best just to give yourself up to the flow of events and leave it at that.

Spacek who had starred in Carrie the previous year is excellent as the somewhat disturbed teenager whilst Duvall who would play Olive Oyl in Altman’s rather less successful Popeye (1980) gives the performance of her career,  

FYI: Altman returned to similar material in one of his best films, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982).




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