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Identities merge in fascinating dream-like drama charged with dark erotic overtones

Agust 14, 2009

By Jimmy Gillman

Jimmy Gillman
3 Women
20th Century Fox; 1977; 125 minutes; PG, for brief nudity, mild violence, adult situations and language; Directed by Robert Altman; Starring: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule and Robert Fortier; Screenwriter(s): Robert Altman

 

 

 

 

GRADE: B+

Like any good film dealing with abstract concepts, director Robert Altman’s “3 Women” mixes standard narrative and camera compositions with gauzy, dreamlike perspectives that words alone cannot depict, paying particular attention to images created by filming through water and glass.

The canvases in many of the film’s scenes are of striking color schemes and avant-garde artwork meant to reflect the various emotional states of the three women in question; many are impressionist paintings depicting reptilian-like females repelling the aggressions of animalistic men; obvious, perhaps, but in the hands of a master craftsman and storyteller like Altman, the effect is hallucinogenic
 
The plot, as much as there is one in any Altman exercise, concerns a lonely, would-be social butterfly whose constant outreach and overtures to those around her are met with indifference; the woman’s dissolute co-worker, who has become enamored with her; and a pregnant middle-aged artist and her husband, owners of the apartment in which the two girls live and a shabby, run down theme-bar they frequent.
 
This is the precipice from which Altman’s screenplay launches as he examines the kinds of themes Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman famously tackled in his landmark film, “Persona.” That film, like “3 Women,” is challenging, at times confounding; a highly unusual undertaking that, like its subject matter, is nearly beyond description.
 
In exploring the interactions between these three women, things become increasingly creepy; one quickly senses they are each headed toward some unknown, undefined disaster. That sense of foreboding tightens the film’s grip, making it not only an incisive character study, but a voyeuristic guilty pleasure akin to waiting for an accident at an auto race. It’s exhilarating, and at the same time unnerving, especially when it collides with the reprieves of humor, satire and acerbic social commentary (much of it aimed at the health care profession) Altman sprinkles on top of the film's firmly established oddball atmosphere.
 
The foregoing might sound to some viewers like there will be little to relate to in this far flung film, but in many ways the opposite is true when one considers that everyone must maintain their own identity while at the same time forming alliances with others, often requiring us to sublimate our fears and anxieties in order to connect. Yet that mechanism for socialization can also give rise to the notion of who is who, the paradox that can arise when the line between ourselves and others blur, potentially reshaping our core identity, perhaps even one's very soul.
 
Many of us have experienced losing ourselves in another person, sacrificing part (or even all) of who we are in an attempt to complete ourselves or to fill some void. Often we do this to justify our needs and reinforce our sense of self even though by so doing we risk changing the basic equation. It’s this dilemma that lies at the heart of “3 Women,” a film with a difficult point of view and a disturbing climax that will leave many viewers emotionally drained, no doubt as Altman intended.
 
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Film Grading Key

A+ Can't get any better

A Outstanding

A- Superior effort

B+ Very good

B Good

B- Still worth watching

C+ Strictly iffy

C Waste of time

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

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