Robert Altman's commentary track for Three Women suggests that films are finite; they are obligated to tell a story with a solid beginning, middle and an end. He goes onto say that paintings don't share the same restrictions; you stare at a painting for hours and examine the imagery without having the artist's intent spoon-fed to you.
It not surprising that Three Women has a painterly motif, and those paintings are pretty damn disturbing. The film is populated with lizardy, simian representations of quasi-humans. They mirror the characters in the film in content, if not appearance. There's the pregnant artist Willie (Janice Rule), who doesn't talk about her work or about anything else. She runs the bar where Millie (Shelley Duvall) spends most of her spare time. She's a friendless orderly (‘nurse' is too broad a term) at the local run-down spa who carries on a running narrative of her life to anyone unfortunate enough to be within listening distance.
When Pinky (Sissy Spacek) arrives at the spa, she's mousey, lonely and ready to be shaped by anyone who pays attention to her. She leaps at a chance to share an apartment with Millie, and you can see that she's starved for something close to normality. For her, Millie's tuna melts and chocolate pudding cups smack of luxury.
Pinky says little; you see her emotions spelled out on her face. Millie never shuts up; she has a faux-friendly manner and delusions of grandeur (her wardrobe is copied, badly, from a 1975 Virginia Slims ad). If you had to steal somebody's life, why steal hers? Why steal anybody's?
Three Women is a study of people trying to be something they're not due to their circumstances; the world is too unglamorous, cruel or indifferent to give them what they think they deserve. Their lives connect, slowly and in an increasingly messy fashion, with Altman's woozy camerawork (lots of shots through water, even in the desert) giving the project a thick, slow, dreamlike quality.
It's not a good dream. The film unfolds into the worst kind of nightmare, one where the absurd and the painfully real live next to each other. Polanski tiptoed through this territory in both Repulsion and The Tenant, and David Lynch does it pretty much constantly, but Altman's dreamworld is possessed with a base and subtle dread that feels fresh and distinct over 30 years after the film's release.
Extras include two trailers (both oblique, for the art crowd) and two TV commercials which make the film look like a horror flick (to be fair, this is not an easy film to sell). The Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt provides above-average liner notes discussing the film and the changing state of Hollywood at the time of its release.
But it's Altman's commentary that stands out the most, especially his explanation of wanting to make something that would involve the audience emotionally, even if they couldn't understand why. Three Women achieves that with emotions that are distinct and very real. Highly recommended.
© 2004 Michael John Derbecker