By Norm Nielsen and Melanie Reed
A film can be like literature, like music, or like a painting. Robert Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women looks like a soft watercolor landscape painting and evokes an oneiric mood. Gerald Busby’s atonal musical score is also designed to wrench the viewer out of normality. The psychodrama storyline is secondary to the tone, which shifts from humorous to sad, then to dread, and finally to defiance. Although it was written, produced, and directed by one of America’s foremost filmmakers of the New Hollywood Era, 3 Women feels very European, possibly because Altman modeled his approach on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, and Luis Buñuel films like The Exterminating Angel.
3 Women easily passes the Bechdel Test. The film mainly follows the shifting relationship between two women in their mid 20s, Millie (Shelly Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). The film is set in Southern California’s Mojave Desert in the vicinity of Palm Springs. Millie, a lonely low-level therapist who personifies several years of Good Housekeeping back issues, works at a warm springs spa that caters to geriatrics. Tasked to train the childlike and enigmatic new hire Pinky, she also invites her to live with her, and Pinky jumps at the chance. Millie then introduces Pinky to her life.
After work Millie likes to hang out at a rundown desert tourist attraction named Dodge City which has drought-stricken landscaping surrounding wild west buildings that include a saloon and livery stable. Dodge City is a place where cops and construction workers go after work to ride dirt-bike motorcycles, shoot guns, and drink. Millie fancies such men because after a few beers they might notice her. The place is owned by has-been western movie stuntman Edgar (Robert Forier) and his sad, silent, pregnant wife Willie (Janice Rule) who paints large domineering male demon-like figures on patios and swimming pools. As the film progresses, Pinky obsessively studies Millie and starts to adopt her mannerisms, eventually ending up taking on Millie’s entire personality. Willie’s character becomes more important in the second half of the film, and her home birth cements the bond between the three women, after which they live at Dodge City as a family. At this point Pinky reverts to her childlike persona and Willie even more to her quiet sadness. Millie, however, is confidently strong as she mothers both Pinky and Willie; Millie has become self aware and developed an individuality. As the film ends, men are nowhere in sight, and Edgar’s “accidental” death is alluded to. The French poster for 3 Women neatly summarizes the film’s arc: One woman becomes two. Two women become three. Three women become one.
Were he alive, Carl Jung would have a field day interpreting 3 Women. Archetypes are abundant: Dodge City is a habitat where men rule and women endure, representing an inner landscape familiar to women. Millie is a consumerist woman, lacking depth and obsessed about image. But childlike Pinky latches onto her as the person she wants to become. Willie is an earth mother who communicates in symbols – Altman shot several images of Willie through a wave motion machine to create a sense of the amniotic fluid sloshing around in her womb. The old people in the spa also move about slowly in the warm pool water as if they are returning to amniotic fluid. 3 Women abounds with mirror shots to create double images, and the spa workers also include twin women who are undistinguishable from one another.
According to Altman, the entire idea of 3 Women came to him in a dream, which was detailed enough to include the title, the theme of personality theft, and Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek in the lead roles. Altman stated that 3 Women was intended to be like an impressionist painting – neither logic-driven nor lucid. As in a dream it relies on archetypes to form an enigmatic context open to individual interpretation, and with multiple viewings the interpretation shifts over time. Normality does not apply to 3 Women – it reaches you at a deep level. But like a recurring dream, it must be visited more than once to be fully appreciated, let alone understood.
Norm Nielsen and Melanie Reed are Scarecrow Video volunteers.