Wednesday, March 5, 2008

3 Women: Altman's puzzling, oneiric, flawed masterpiece

Sometime in 1977, while his wife was frighteningly ill and in hospital, Robert Altman went home to get some much-needed sleep and literally dreamed of his next movie. All he knew was that it would be set in a desert, have something to do with identity theft, star Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, and be called 3 Women. Those were the days before Altman’s commercial cred was lost, M*A*S*H and Nashville were still fresh victories, and all Altman had to do was stop by the 20th Century Fox studios on his way to the airport, throw his skeleton of a pitch at Alan Ladd Jr. and within minutes he had a picture deal. He didn’t even miss his flight.

3 Women is an enigmatic jewel from that magic period of freedom for Altman. His dream infused the film not only with raw materials of cast, theme and setting, but with a strange atmosphere of aquatic veils, exaggerated colours, a weird dialogue of opacity and transparency through steam, reflections, shadows and rising heat. Yet it also delved into a small, isolated pocket of the US swathed with a loneliness and frailty amidst dusty kitsch Americana (mini-golf, shooting ranges and dirt bikes) and superficiality. It’s perplexing as all hell, and I’m not certain it ever quite reaches the full circle it strives for, but it makes as crystalline and lasting an impression as anything Altman’s ever done.

The first moments are transporting: A woman painting a mural is seen through a tumbling aquarium. And then we see an indoor pool, following elephantine legs which intermingle with more aged torsos walking and wading. Gerald Busby’s atonal score heightens the slightly alien aura. The pool is a spa for the elderly and infirm, a place where young women gently guide patients through simple exercises. The spa’s model employee is Millie (Duvall), an oddly beautiful and utterly by-the-book young woman possessing a certain women’s magazine glamour. We meet Millie as she trains Pinky (Spacek), a new employee who seems even younger, eager though mischievous. “You’re a little like me, aren’t you?” Millie says to Pinky at one point, and Pinky takes the comment to heart: what immediately begins between the two women is hard to put your finger on, but it’s as though Pinky initially exists devoid of some essence of personality, and her hero worship of Millie becomes something both more profound and sinister.

For all its emphasis on theme, ambiguity and aesthetic, refined performances are crucial to 3 Women. Duvall is simultaneously beguiling and pathetic as Millie, nurturing her attractiveness yet living in a virtual vacuum of human affection, and the magic of her performance is partially attributable to the fact that she practically invented her character, writing the diaries we hear her read, the shopping lists and recipes (Duvall even bought the groceries to make Millie’s ridiculous cheese spray hors d’oeurves). And Spacek transforms so seamlessly in the film’s second half of metaphysics and narrative leaps, going from child to temperamental seductress and back to child again. As well, both are funny, wearing their characters’ abundant eccentricities as though they were totally normal.

3 Women clearly owes something to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but it lives in its own separate world with its own psychic implications. Everything in 3 Women conspires to some larger, unspoken event: the Bohdi Wind murals of sexual monsters painted in empty swimming pools by Willie (Janice Rule), the third woman of the title; the snobbish twins at the spa who seem content to communicate only with each other; the appearance of an elderly couple who may or may not be Pinky’s parents but who haunt Millie with their otherness and repellent age. What does it all mean? The good news is that the audio commentary Altman provided for Criterion's DVD release a few years back is often illuminating without ever trying to explain it all. The rest is up to us.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Hey, JB.

Have you seen this recent list of great Shelley Duvall performances in The House Next Door? It does a nice job of capturing her unique charm, and rightly identifies her brilliant, pathetic characterization of Millie in 3 Women as the apex of her career.

It's sad to hear that Duvall has apparently pretty much retired from making movies. It seems unlikely that an actress with her unconventional looks would get the opportunities today that she received in the ’70s. Who's the closest equivalent to a Shelley Duvall today? At best, it would be a gorgeous-quirky girl like Zooey Deschanel or Christina Ricci.

JB said...

Hey Paul. Thanks so much for the link -it's terrific!

Sadly, I wonder if it's even possible for some newcomer like Duvall to find herself playing leads in major films anymore. Most independent American filmmakers depend on the participation of major stars to help draw attention to their work, so it's hard to imagine many of them taking such a gamble on someone as absolutely quirky as Duvall (even if as a young woman her beauty was slightly more in keeping with convention -and I do mean slightly). Maybe David Gordon Green could do it, but even then, look at the casts for his last two films... Kate Beckinsale? Perhaps we need to look abroad to find such up and coming actresses. I noticed that Anamaria Marinca has a part in the last Coppola (which I still haven't seen).

Of course this doesn't even touch on the issue of what roles exist for the likes of Duvall in their later careers. I think Meryl Streep pretty much snags the few good parts available, and even then...