Two roommates and an artist share a bizarre relationship after a series of emotional traumas.
I’ve seen quite a few of Robert Altman’s (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Nashville”) films now, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of them. In fact, while “3 Women” is probably my least favorite of his films (besides “Popeye”, of course), I still think it’s a decent movie. Though Altman has made a few epic films, some of which fall around the three hour mark, I’ve usually had only minor problems with his pacing. This is a film that felt about a half an hour longer than it should’ve been. There are just too many lengthy scenes that seem to be there only to show off Altman’s directing. As a whole, the film is pretty decent, but I say that more because of the performances of Shelley Duvall (“The Shining”) and more impressively Sissy Spacek (“Badlands”) whom were both absolutely incredible, and because the themes that came through at the end of the film really made up for the pacing near the beginning.
“I wonder what it’s like to be twins.”
Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall) is a physical therapist working at a health spa in California. One day, a childish and awkward woman named Pinky Rose (Spacek) moves from out of town and gets a job at the same spa, and Millie is asked to train her. When Millie needs a roommate, Pinky moves in with her, and Millie begins showing Pinky the places she’s hanging out, including a policeman bar owned by a pregnant artist named Willie (Janice Rule, “Missing (1982)”) and her deadbeat husband Edgar (Robert Fortier, “Popeye”).
Honestly, the best part of this film is just watching the character dynamics between Pinky and Millie, because both of the characters they play are so strange and unique. Pinky in particular is fascinating because of the way we first meet her. She’s so childlike in her mannerisms that it’s difficult to place exactly how old she’s supposed to be when we first meet her; is she just an incredibly immature teenager, or an adult with some kind of undiagnosed social anxiety? Spacek plays Pinky beautifully because we, as a viewer, can never quite pin down her actions or why she’s doing the things she does. All we know is that Pinky wants to be accepted by Millie, but we don’t know how far she is willing to go. Pinky seems unstable more than anything else, and that leads to some wonderfully intense moments between the two main characters.
But while Pinky is the more overtly interesting character, Millie too has a lot that seems to hide beneath the surface. When we first meet Millie, it seems as if she is a popular person with lots of friends around her, but as the film continues, it becomes obvious that this is just the persona Millie is pushing. Many of the people Millie considers her friends treat her very poorly; she’s a bit of an outcast, though she’s disillusioned herself into thinking that people like her. It isn’t until Pinky has her ‘accident’ that Millie really starts to see who cares about her and who really just wants to use her.
The third woman in “3 Women”-Willie- doesn’t really come into play too much until the end of the film, but her artwork is incorporated throughout as a kind of running metaphor. Most of her murals are done in a style that sort of hints at prehistory, and the many of the murals depict woman grouping together and men attacking them from the outside. Near the end of the film, these murals take on more meaning.
Where the character dynamics really start to get interesting is after Pinky’s accident, and here I have to throw up a spoiler tag. Much of this film is just about watching the character dynamics shift as the incidents the characters go through affect them, so if you haven’t seen the film but intend to do so, I’d recommend you stop reading here.
SPOILERS ABOUT THE SECOND HALF OF THE FILM FOLLOW
After Millie brings home a drunken Edgar, planning to sleep with him, Pinky throws herself from the second story balcony into a pool and falls into a coma. After Pinky wakes, Millie, feeling as if she is responsible for Pinky’s attempted suicide, starts to look after Pinky more carefully, but Pinky’s personality has shifted greatly. Pinky starts asking people to refer to her by her given birthname, Mildred (which is coincidentally also Millie’s birthname- the third woman, you’ll remember is Willie- Millie, Willie, and Mildred), and she also leaves behind her adolescent personality and starts behaving more like Millie’s outgoing personality.
After a while, the two sort of switch personalities completely, and after a long and vague and pretentious dream, Millie and Pinky share a bed in a nonsexual way. That night, Edgar breaks into their house and says his wife is having a baby, but no one is there with her. Millie and Pinky go to the house to deliver the child, but it’s born stillborn. We flash forward, and see that Millie and Pinky are working at Willie’s bar; we also learn that Edgar died in a ‘gun accident’, it’s implied that Millie and Pinky might be responsible. In this final scene, Millie is dressed as Willie, and Pinky is behaving as her usual self again. It’s implied that these three women sort of interchange personalities to fit their needs as they go about their daily lives, and in each other, they’ve found everything they need and created a safe space. Or, it could be saying that they are all one person and that they all represent different personality traits of one person. I could see arguments made for either interpretation, and honestly, I’m pretty sure Altman left him implications a little vague completely purposefully; I personally like the idea that these three women come together to create a safe space together.
I actually really enjoyed the way these themes worked together in the end, but I do have to say that the film just took too long to get to the actual point. I felt as if many of the scenes near the beginning could’ve been trimmed, but, simultaneously, it almost made up for it with the great performances by our two leads.
For the most part this movie is good, but the length and pacing hold me back from calling it one of Altman’s better films. Duvall and Spacek are both at the top of their game, and if you’re looking for a dramatic film with a few thrilling moments, this would certainly fit that bill.
End note: Even a few hours after I finished watching this movie I felt it’s presence grow in my mind. This is a film that lingers, and I’m sure the longer I think about this movie the more of an impact it will have on me.
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