Monday, July 10, 2006

3 Women

The Altman watching continued today as I checked out another one of his 70s classics, 3 Women. Even more than Nashville, this is a film that would be completely impossible to make within the studio system today. Even the vast majority of indies don't come close to this level of narrative ambiguity. So, we can be thankful that Altman got a chance to do stuff like this back then.

Watching a film like this, with the high levels of narrative ambiguity and character transition, forces you to sit back and go with the flow. For a lot of people this is a problem, unlike Mulholland Dr., which engages in similar identity games, there's no definitive answer for what happens here. The film gives you the raw material to think over, but it's up to you to construct your own throughline. Altman drew the film from dreams, and it's likely that even he doesn't know exactly what everything means, it just feels right emotionally.

I'll start with the film's ending and track back. The closing moments of this film remind me of Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle, in the sense that the last scene isn't so much tied into the narrative we've seen before as it is a thematic summation of the film as a whole. These three women represent archetypes and as the film progresses, we see them each grow up and take on each others' roles. The entire film is about the life cycle, the progression from childhood to adulthood to old age and ultimately death.

Water is a critical image in the film. We open with a pool, images of naked people adorning the walls, reproduction is a clear motif. Water is where we come from, and it's ultimately where we go back to, we move from the waters of birth at the beginning to the water of death, which the old people enter. It's clearly a cyclical thing.

At the beginning of the film we see Pinky as a child, lacking confidence and seeking a mother figure to latch onto. She finds a role model in Millie, a single woman who seems to be in total control of her life. Her self image is totally out of whack with how society perceives her. She considers herself a confident single woman, with countless male admirers. She's trying to conform to the image of single women presented in magazines, however in reality no one particularly cares about her. Her attempts at high fashion are mocked by the other people in the singles' community and the doctors don't even notice she's there. At work, she's the only one without a counterpart, so she naturally latches on to Pinky, who looks up to her and makes her feel like the image she has of herself.

Millie is constantly making allusions to the interest that men have in her, talking about the pill and the rollaway bed, and at first Pinky is quite admiring, imitating Millie in every way she can. However, as things progress, the reality of Millie's life comes to the surface. She obsesses about her dinner party, but the people wind up not even showing up and when she goes out to get a man, it's actually Edgar. Seeing Millie with Edgar exposes Pinky to the fact that most of Millie's claims are hyperbole and that it's not Pinky holding Millie back, it's Millie herself.

Millie yells at Pinky and forces her to be complicit in Edgar cheating on his pregnant wife. Being exposed to the truth about Millie, her parent figure, forces Pinky to grow up and plunge into the water. The water in the film is associated with the life cycle, Pinky enters a child, but emerges as an adult, taking on the role that Millie had fashioned for herself in the first part of the film.

Here, we see another parent/child relationship. Pinky wakes up and says that she doesn't know the people who claim to be her parents. This works both as evidence that Pinky has become part of a new family unit, with Millie and Willie, however it also works as a depiction of what every child has to do to grow up. In becoming an adult, Pinky must reject her parents and establish herself as an independent person. This is an extreme representation of that, in that she actually claims that they aren't her parents at all, but it fits perfectly with the theme of growing up.

Earlier in the film, our point of view character was usually Pinky, and we saw Millie through her eyes. However, after Pinky goes into the coma there's a switch, and we begin to see things through Millie's eyes. After waking up, Pinky fashions herself into the person that Millie wanted to be. She's popular with all the men at the apartment complex and has even taken Edgar away from Millie. Physically she's transformed into an adult, putting on makeup and dressing in a different way. In becoming an adult, she has forced Millie into the role of a mother. We no longer see Millie pursuing men, rather she's trying to keep Pinky safe. The car stealing episode in particular sees Millie treating Pinky like her daughter. Pinky's leap has also forced Millie to grow up and abandon her previous identity. She's become the mother.

So, where does that leave the woman who's actually pregnant? With Millie growing up to assume the role of mother, Willie must also grow up and give up her fertility. This is dramatically represented in the scene in which Willie gives birth to a stillborn child. The generations have advanced and she now must be the elderly one. During this scene we see water covering parts of the screen, as in the opening scene, a visual reminder of the advance of generations.

The film's final scene effectively sums up the themes of what we've seen before, clarifying the roles of all the women within the film. Pinky now calls Millie her mother, and Willie is the grandmother. This scene is designed to show us how each of the characters embodies one of the archetypal female roles, and over the course of time they move through these roles. The film's tagline is 1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1, the 3 Women of the title aren't the three characters, rather it's the three archetypal roles: child, mother and elder.

If the archetypal role of woman is to give birth, to bear and produce life, the critical scene of the entire film is the birth scene. Here, we see Willie, the elder, becoming aware that she is no longer able to give birth, she has moved beyond fertility and lost her purpose. Millie insists that she doesn't know how to deliver a child, but because she's in the role of mother, she draws on innate knowledge that shows her what to do. Pinky is outside, the child confronted with her future. She may be young now, but eventually she will be the one giving birth and that scares her.

As the film proceeds, it becomes more and more about these archetypal roles and the characters recede from reality. We no longer see them at work and by the end even the singles complex has faded away. The birth scene takes place away from society, out in the desert with only women present. Here, we see the death of a male child, he can not live in this world which is devoted to exploring the life cycle of women. Similarly, Edgar dies. He has no place in the final scene, which is about characters embodying the three stages of the female life cycle.

So, the critical thing to note about this film is the way that it progresses from a relatively mundane real world setting into an increasingly metaphoric world where characters cease to have agency and instead are forced into roles dictated by the progression of time. Just like no one makes a conscious decision to stop being young, Millie never decides to move into the role of mother, rather the ascent of a new generation means that she can not continue to live the life of a young single woman. Just as Pinky stole her social security number, she steals her role in the world, forcing Millie to find another.

The final scene effectively sums it all up, showing the way that all women are connected and through the progression of time, the young supplant the old until they return to the waters and the cycle begins again.

Was this the interpretation that Altman intended? I don't know, but I feel like the film supports it. I don't think this was strong as McCabe or Nashville, but from an analytical perspective, it may be Altman's richest, most challenging film.

Related Posts
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)
Nashville (7/7/2006)

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