Monday, December 8, 2008

Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977): "Water, water everywhere..."

"I'd rather face a thousand crazy savages than one woman who's learned to shoot." Robert Fortier as Edgar Hart in 3 Women

Another 1970s masterpiece from director Robert Altman, 3 Women is an enigmatic story of fluid identity, displacement, and mythic concepts of womanhood. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are perfectly cast as women who continually mirror one another as they share a job and an apartment. Janice Rule as Willie Hart completes the title in a lesser role as an artist, but her paintings, nightmarishly erotic, hover at the blurry, watery edges of the entire film.

Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux gives us a voiceover narration that in its dissociation and lack of affect reminds me, in a good way, of DeNiro's in Taxi Driver. Bourgeois, petty, and given to yammering at the mouth long after folks have walked off, utterly ignored by her neighbors, men and coworkers, Duvall gives a career-best performance as a nearly painful-to-watch loser. Too bad it's in this underseen gem.

Coming off her Oscar-nominated leading role in Carrie (1976), Sissy Spacek stars here as another girl child, wide-eyed Pinky Rose (Freudian much?) who also seems to be repressing her raging id (yes). Eventually she will experience betrayal, trauma and rebirth, and reject her (impossibly old, impossibly still sexual) parents. Reborn, she threatens the now-unstable Millie in a whole new manner.

The only man of any significance is former stuntman/TV-cowboy stand-in (i.e., not a real man), Willie's husband Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier), who shoots blanks (ha-ha, get it?) with his old prop gun. Crude, leathery and macho, he insinutates himself into the women's lives... but at what price? I'll give you one hint. It seems he didn't always shoot blanks, for Willie is pregnant...

As always, Altman's camera slowly weaves across scenes, never quite settling in any one place, but giving us hints and allusions to characters' states of mind. Slows dissolves and flowing water, long takes of barren landscapes, flesh young and old, women with real guns and men with toy ones, life floating by as if a dream, Altman pictures a world of women dehumanized, and their imperfect struggle for power and selfhood, however fleeting or imagined. The haunting, slightly ghostly score by Gerald Busby seems fit more for a psychological horror movie--but then, perhaps it is perfectly suited.

The Criterion Collection DVD has a commentary by Altman, who is always eager to recount the genesis of his movies (3 Women was based on a dream of his, with input from Duvall for her character's diary entries and voiceover) and fun stuff that happened while shooting. I listened to a fair amount but shut it off for a reason I'm sure he'd appreciate: I wanted to keep my impressions of the film pure and intact; a film so firmly subjective demands a personal response.

The trailer perfectly captures the movie's tone:

I was utterly captivated and moved and disturbed by 3 Women, not expecting when I sat down to find a film so allusive (and elusive), so monstrously mythic, and yet firmly rooted in the arid Southwest in the mid'70s. Overall the movie is reminiscent of both Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski--Bergman for its thorough deconstruction of personality and measured pace (Persona); Polanski for its chilling dreamlike tone that portends doom at any moment and threat of insanity (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby), and because, in the end, I'm not sure if this is a work of overt misogyny or heroic feminism. Oh well - it's all Altman in the end.

1 comment:

SusannahK said...

Beautifully written Will. This film is one of my favorites although I was shy to admit it when I first saw it in the late 70's. What with everyone so amped on "Star Wars" and the like. Hard to imagine a film like "3 Women" being made by a major studio but those were the mixed-up days. Haunting, dreamy and perfect fodder for a film student's thesis. Were the three women representative of the Id, Ego and SuperEgo? or is this one Jungian psyche going through a rite-of-passage? But it's not just food for the brain; "3 Women" is sensual and erotic. Thanks for focusing on this lovely and strange movie.