3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)

by Smart

The tagline for Altman’s 3 Women was enough to generate my interest in the film. “1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1”. Cryptic and nonsensical, it made me think of a few others films: Persona, Mulholland Dr. and Celine and Julie Go Boating. Complexity was a certainty. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are odd people, and perhaps the perfect casting choices for this film, which delved straight into the bizarre and discomfited from the very first second. The opening shot sets up a mesmerizing tone with its persistent, rhythmically beating score and softly flowing camera. We soon split our attention equally between the two main women, Millie and Pinky, who seem to be forming a friendship of sorts. The awkwardness generated by these two characters is almost unbearable, and together their faux pas prone behaviour and palpable desperation feels like it is building into an imminent disaster. Altman forces the audience to be all too aware of just how unaware these characters are, and it’s a maddening sensation to watch on in silence.

Genius sound design gives the viewer an omniscient perspective, where important strands of conversations are plucked and amplified freely, creating a revolving environment that reflects upon the inner denial of the characters. Frequent camera zooms isolate and alienate at apt moments, giving suggestive emotion to blank faces. There are even several cues taken directly from the horror genre, which add to the uneasiness of the experience, where it feels that something dreadful is always happening just out of view. Then it hits, halfway in a dramatic shift reveals the true direction of the film. Things escalate and beautiful moments of expressionism being to creep in. Subjectivity of psychological states becomes an overwhelming concern as the tagline finally steps into play. The world of 3 Women is wrong, it is off centre and unusual. Fate is repeatedly lined up and followed through, but without the slightest of reflection or consideration by the women it affects. Their motivations are never clear and their actions are even more dubious.