I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to see Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Released at the peak of his acclaim, and having the additional attraction (for me) of a fairly experimental approach, it seems like the kind of thing I would have made a point of seeing. Perhaps the prospect of Altman making something in the European art film mode inspired more ambivalence than confidence. Undeniably gifted and original, Altman was also at least as much poseur as poet, often tarnishing his finest qualities with a facile, idiotic irony.
Aside from some heavy-handed swipes at medical bureaucrats and cops, Altman the smart-aleck is blessedly absent from 3 Women, but that isn’t enough to make it a success. The title might well be 3 Films, because there are at least as many contradictory currents swirling around his creamy, Panavision frames. Purportedly based on a dream, 3 Women tells what at first seems a fairly naturalistic story about Millie Lamoureux (Shelley Duvall), an attendant at a geriatric rehab center and her new roommate, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Altman’s handling of their relationship and the salty, depressed, California desert milieu is deft, discreetly sensitive and original, perhaps some of his very best work.
The third woman, Willie (Janice Rule) is an artist who paints murals of violent, semi-erotic, stylized figures. With her introduction, the film shifts gears, from finely observed characters and environment to a mannered, rather perverse set of deliberately unanswered questions, posed largely, it seems, to provide an excuse for the increasingly stylized visuals. There is nothing, in fact, about Willie that is especially deep or mysterious, but she is treated as if she is both, saying very little and glowering at the camera a lot. In the film’s atmosphere of priapic idiocy, her frowns presumably express disgust or contempt at the infidelity, insensitivity and rank stupidity of every man in the movie, although things are never that forthright.
Which, given the “third movie,” seems even more ponderous and tendentious than it might otherwise. Mixed with the naturalism and iconic imagery is a series of shoddy melodramatic setups, like one character reading another’s diary, or the adultery between Millie and Willie’s husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), or Pinky’s attempted suicide. Worse, all of these contrivances build to an opaque ending in which the three women have bonded together into a warped parody of a family, while the camera does an Antonioni to end the film on a pile of used tires. What on earth is that supposed to mean, that Altman is tired?
Even in the best moments, there’s a discrepancy between the well observed surfaces and what they contain. Actors and locations are exploited for their realistic appearance, while the camerawork strains to emphasize the most unusual compositions. Ultimately 3 Women feels like an arty exercise pasted on to a quasi-documentary exploitation of an environment, jacked up by cheap melodrama. The result is neither redolent nor profound, but an unstable, rather hollow and muddled mix.