3 Women

3 Women ★★★★½

85/100

Not much to add to my Time Out New York review, written for its Film Forum run in 2002, back when there was still no DVD. I've seen this three times now and on both repeat viewings it's turned out to be much weirder and more impervious to analysis than I remembered. That's mostly a good thing.

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An insert provided with the DVD of Mulholland Drive offers "David Lynch's ten clues to unlocking this thriller," directing confused viewers to "notice appearances of the red lampshade" and "pay particular attention to the beginning of the film." Robert Altman's 3 Women—a tour de force of dream logic set in Southern California, involving two young women whose identities shift like tectonic plates (sound familiar?)—hasn't yet been released on video in any format (making its weeklong run at Film Forum something of an event), but it's probably safe to assume that no helpful hints are forthcoming. Casually foreboding and mysteriously mundane, the picture demands to be savored, not solved; its lucid performances and expressive zooms achieve an emotional clarity that transcends mere sense.

Alert readers will have noticed that I mentioned "two young women" above, whereas the film's title specifies three. The third, Willie (Janice Rule), a silent presence decked out in a Stepford-wife ensemble, remains at the drama's periphery, painting gargantuan murals dominated by reptilian nudes that function as avatars of lust and rage. These disturbing images fascinate Mildred "Pinky" Rose (Sissy Spacek), who's just arrived in Desert Springs from Texas with little more than a sewing kit and a childlike demeanor. Hired to supervise the residents of a geriatric center, Pinky quickly gloms on to fellow employee (and Texan) Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), a blithely inane chatterbox who's never met a shade of eye-searing yellow she didn't like. In record time, and despite personalities that suggest Before and After snapshots for a lobotomy advertisement, the two become roommates...though this is by no means the final configuration of their odd relationship.

Gazing at her namesake with equal parts infatuation and identification, Pinky/Mildred initially comes across like a forerunner of Jennifer Jason Leigh's covetous gal pal in Single White Female. But Altman, who claims the scenario came to him in a dream, is after something far more elusive than rote suspense, or even simple transference. Ultimately, 3 Women offers something both unique and paradoxical: a portrait of collective solipsism. (The most common criticism leveled at the film—that the single-mindedly gregarious Millie, oblivious to the jeers of her neighbors and secure in her tacky taste, is little more than a misanthrope's object of ridicule—couldn't be more misguided.) Pinky, Millie and Willie reside in quixotic, infinitely malleable bubbles of their own devising.

Or something like that. Look, I'm the critic—I have to offer some kind of analysis, lest the rent go unpaid. But that doesn't mean you have to worry about what it all means. Do yourself a favor: Surrender.

[APR 2013: Yes, I used to overuse that conclusion when reviewing ambiguous movies, I now see. In fairness, though, the two examples posted here recently were written years apart.]