3 Women (The Criterion Collection) Review

Movies about doubles tend to state the obvious. Just in case you hadn't realized that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis were supposed to be opposites of each other in Black Swan, Aronofsky paraded them through a long series of cracked mirrors to remove any ambiguity from the point. Ditto with Hitchcock, whose actresses all kind of looked alike anyway, not to mention Persona, Dead Ringers, Single White Female, and the list goes on. 3 Women has a similar issue, but manages to distinguish itself by providing an intermediary between its polar opposites: the water's reflection. Millie and Pinky are a pretty stock film duo, one outgoing and excitable, the other introverted and needy. But the title, of course, is 3 Women, and complicates things with Willie, a largely silent omnipresence whose artwork is usually there even when she is not. If they were looking simply into the mirror, Millie and Pinky might see each other, but as they are looking through a distorted funhouse mirror, each of them sees Willie.

Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is from Texas; even this minor fact is called into question. She comes out to a small desert community somewhere between her stated point of origin and Los Angeles to work at its seemingly largest institution: a physical therapy center for the elderly whose principal methods involve its shallow indoor pool, the walls of which are decorated with illustrations of vaguely-ancient, definitely menacing creatures. She is immediately taken with Millie (Shelley Duvall), who projects a cosmopolitan air that could only impress a naïf like Pinky. Pinky needs a strong guiding hand like Millie's, but not as much as Millie needs leverage against her own feelings of failure and insecurity. Turn by turn, they begin to absorb each other, reacting to each other's power plays as if by reflexive organ, and eventually exchanging what little identities they might have thought they had. Floating in the background is Willie (Janice Rule), the wife of Edgar (Robert Fortier), who is openly flirtatious with perhaps everyone but his own wife. She is constantly painting her murals, but silent, her strange creatures her only true form of communication.

If you were to take a shot every time that someone or something is seen either through water or in its reflection, you'd be drunk well before the third act, when you'd otherwise be convinced that this film was a major inspiration for Mulholland Drive. Most of the film’s locations have a pool, either empty or active, and if they don’t, they have a fish tank. The effect with each is generally the same: eerie, distorted, and skewing the proportions of its subject. The way that Millie and Pinky trade personalities is fairly standard, and plainly telegraphed early on in the film (of a pair of twins, Pinky says, “I wonder if they know which is which”), but it is Willie’s contribution that enriches 3 Women beyond a stock duality retread. She does little, and says less, as if she is the perfect blank canvas for a human nature to be imprinted on. Her presence in the film doesn’t become fulfilled until the third act (which, again, is a stark departure from the rest of the film), but it is there that her mystery, previously adrift in the background, comes to assume both Millie and Pinky.

But even that is secondary to the principal skewed reflection that Altman shows us, which is the distortion of this world against our own. While never breaching into outright fantasy, there’s something about this desert world that just feels a bit off. It’s hard to think of any town where there are so many foreboding murals by a single artist, or that the principal hangout for randy adults is a disused ‘Old West’ amusement park. This may be the case certain places, and Altman carries it off with a naturalism (indeed, every performance seems to feel indigenous to a place like this) that makes the finale even more jarring. Really, these are just red herrings that Altman throws in to make it feel like a mystery without ever asking for it to be solved, or for our perceptions to intrude on the snow globe world that gave it life.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The film has been remastered (something its fans were worried would never happen), and includes a commentary with Robert Altman. There are also some trailers and television spots, and the disc comes with a booklet featuring an essay by David Sterritt.

"3 Women (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale September 13, 2011 and is rated PG. Drama. Written and directed by Robert Altman. Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


New Reviews