Saturday, August 8, 2009

3 Women Critique

3 Women is an experimental movie based on a dream. (Criterion Commentary, 2004) As such, it is open to multiple interpretations. This essay will attempt to show that 3 Women is an artistic work by describing the feel of the movie, the technique used to create the film, and its separation from story driven films. One possible interpretation of the film will be presented.

The opening shots are composed of slow dissolves and extreme close-ups of young maidens attending to old men and women at Desert Springs. This geriatric spa introduces the elements of water and loneliness to 3 Women. Secondary characters in Desert Springs are either bland or two-dimensional. They exclude Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) from the workplace social scene and ridicule them.

The Purple Sage Apartments is the second of 3 Women’s settings. The apartments are built around a large pool, which contains one of the three reptilian frescoes used throughout the movie. These frescoes, painted by Willie (Janice Rule), represent the struggle for identity shared by the three women. The pool is used as a gathering place for the Purple Sage residents, who also exclude Millie and Pinky. Their ridicule of Millie is a cruel rebuttal to her attempts at gaining their acceptance.

The only place the two main characters are accepted is Dodge City, a saloon/racetrack/shooting range owned by Edgar and Willie. Dodge City is the only one the three settings that does not contain water. It is here that Edgar (Robert Fortier), the only male main character, is introduced. His character is a feminist’s worst nightmare. He swaggers drunkenly through the film, womanizing both Millie and Pinky and abandoning Willie during labor. (3 Women, Roger Ebert, 2004) He is represented on Willie’s frescoes as the lone oppressive male.

The second half of the movie begins after Pinky falls into the pool. The heavy symbolism of the pool sequence implies a birth, rather than a death. Roger Ebert describes this scene as a “tear in the structure of the film”. (3 Women, Roger Ebert, 2004) The pool scene has an emotional, rather than logical, impact on the viewer. It is best described through shot by shot analysis.

The camera shows a pregnant belly on the pool fresco. It cuts to a reflection of Pinky falling upwards toward the surface of the pool and crashing into it. The water explodes as she breaches its surface. In the last shot, Pinky is floating facedown, as if dead. Her position and the blue lighting imply that the birth is stillborn. The Mother, Willie, and one of the apartment males wade into the pool to deliver her to the outside world.

After her rebirth through this near-death experience, Pinky is a changed person. No longer introverted and childish, she is outgoing and flirtatious. She pushes Millie from her role as Maiden and exerts her sexuality on the males at the Purple Sage and Dodge City. Confused and humiliated by her loss of identity, Millie withdraws into herself. The banal fa├žade of the first half falls away into a string of dreamlike scenes that lead to the film’s finale.

As the ending nears, she gradually takes on the role of Mother. When Willie becomes the Crone, after the stillbirth scene, Millie’s transformation is complete. Having claimed identities and independence from Edgar, the three women form a family unit and move into Edgar’s house. Their family unit is as barren as the arid landscape around them. It has no men, and therefore no children or future will be produced. The final shot is of a pile of discarded tires, which Altman jokingly refers to as Edgar’s grave. (Criterion Commentary, 2004)

3 Women does not resemble a typical Altman film. Shots are understated during the first half of the film, which is concerned with banality and un-fulfillment. (A Cinema Of Loneliness, 1988) Active zoom shots are slow or barely noticeable. Long pans accentuate the dreariness of Desert Springs and long shots are used to accentuate Millie’s confusion. Overlapping audio, Altman’s signature technique, is used sparingly. Altman uses mirrors and expressionistic framing techniques to reduce or split his medium and close-up shots.

3 Women is an unusual, interpretive film that premiered in a year that would define the blockbuster era. Experimentation, and Robert Altman, would soon be pushed out of mainstream American cinema. (3 Women, David Sterritt, 2004) Altman’s 3 Women won awards from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, L.A. Film Critics Association, and New York Film Critics Circle. ( It currently stands as one of Altman’s most unique works and is being rediscovered by modern audiences.



Altman, Robert commentary. 3 Women. Dir Robert Altman, produced by Scott Bushnell. Perf. Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek. 1977. Criterion Collection, 2004


Ebert, Roger

3 Women, 2004

Chicago Sun-Times, c2004

Reprinted on


Kolker, Robert Phillip

A Cinema Of Loneliness: Second Edition, 1988

[Oxford, N.Y.]: Oxford University Press, c1988 (pages 372-378)


Sterritt, David

3 Women, 2004

Reprinted by the authors permission on


“3 Women”, 3 Women: Awards Tab

Robert Altman: Director / Producer / Screenwriter

Scott Bushnell: Producer

Charles Rosher Jr.: Cinematographer

Dennis M. Hill : Editor

James D. Vance: Art Director

Chris McLaughlin: Sound/Sound Designer

Richard Portman: Sound/Sound Designer

Jim Webb: Sound/Sound Designer

Monty Westmore: Makeup

Tommy Thompson: First Assistant Director

J. Allen Highfill: Consultant/advisor

Bodhi Wind: Mural Art

Performers: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier

© Howard DiNatale II 2009

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