Robert Altman, 1977
Starring: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule
A young woman named Pinky begins working at a health spa in an isolated town in California. She begins to idolize a coworker, Millie, who is responsible for showing her the ropes. When Millie has an opening in her apartment, Pinky soon moves in. While Pinky is childlike and naive, Millie is full of misplaced confidence and hits on men who ignore her or mock her behind her back. Their apartment complex and the bar they frequent are owned by husband and wife Edgar and Willie. Willie is pregnant and has made a serious of disturbing mural paintings in swimming pools of sexualized, reptilian figures.
One night Millie and Pinky fight over a failed dinner party, and because Millie has brought Edgar home. After Millie yells at her, Pinky throws herself into the pool and winds up in a coma. She eventually wakes up, but has oddly taken on some of Millie’s personality traits. Willie, meanwhile, is about to give birth...
Based on a dream Altman had, 3 Women itself is thoroughly dreamlike. There is only a loose plot and most of the content is made up of a series of visual and emotional impressions. This is a film about the mutable, unfixed nature of identity, but where Altman could have turned this into a simple film about self-discovery, it becomes something far more sinister. This could not be described as an outright horror film, like Altman's earlier Images, but it is bizarre and disturbing enough that it will likely appeal to genre fans.
Altman regular Shelley Duvall is excellent, as always, and gives off a perfect blend of confidence and desperation. Duvall wrote or improvised much of Millie’s dialogue and diary entries, which make up the central voice of the film. Though Millie is absurd and a clear object of pity or ridicule, Duvall makes her empathetic. It’s clear that her endless talking and the rules she has set up for her life are structured around a deep-seated anxiety and self-esteem issues.
Sissy Spacek, fresh off the success of Carrie, is also quite good as the childlike and strange, if somewhat malicious Pinky. The lovely Janice Rule (Bell, Book and Candle) is excellent as the mysterious, maternal Willie, a character that doesn't fully emerge until the second half of the film, though her paintings have an undeniable influence over the proceedings. The work was actually done by Pittsburgh artist Bodhi Wind. Though there are male characters, such as Willie’s husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), they are largely anonymous figures with similar clothes and haircuts. Even Edgar doesn't play a particularly substantial role and his character has quite a bleak ending.
Altman expertly uses water and mirror motifs and they appear in nearly every scene. Water is the setting for nearly every major event in the film. Millie and Pinky work at a health spa with mineral springs, there’s a pool outside of their apartment, and a fish tank within. Willie’s paintings, which eerily line the bottom of both pools, also tie the bar into the larger visual metaphor. This is contrasted with the California desert landscape that surrounds them. There are also doubles, reflections, and mirror images. Like Altman’s earlier masterpiece of female madness and identity, Images, 3 Women was inspired by one of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, Persona, where one woman acts as a mirror and a double for another woman believed to be insane. As with 3 Women, the female characters share and switch identities, and these blurring lines of personality are a source of anxiety, unease, and eventually terror.
Again, as with Images, 3 Women continues the fairy tale theme, evolving it into something more mythic. The three women could easily represent the three Graces or three Furies of Greek mythology or the three Norns of Norse mythology, as well as the almost universal concept of the maiden-mother-crone triple goddess aspects.The beginning of the film is slow and feels like a character drama, but makes a sharp turn at the end of the first hour mark, when Pinky takes a potentially lethal dive into the pool. 3 Women may be too strange or unusual for some viewers, but it is certainly one of Altman's masterpieces. In addition to the clever plot, which was loosely written by Altman himself, there’s a memorable score from Gerald Busby and, as with all Altman’s films that I've seen so far, some incredible cinematography. 3 Women was shot by Chuck Rosher, also responsible for The Onion Field.
Though it was unavailable for many years, Criterion has put out a wonderful edition of 3 Women with some great special features. Both this edition and the film come highly recommended. This is certainly the type of film that is worthy of repeat viewings and would make an interesting, if disturbing double feature with Altman’s Images.