Why I Love… #81: 3 Women

Year: 1977

Director: Robert Altman

Stars: Sissy Spacek (Pinky Rose), Shelley Duvall (Millie Lammoreux), Janice Rule (Willie Hart), Robert Fortier (Edgar Hart)

Genre: Drama

It’s no great surprise that I watch a lot of films. Often more than one in a sitting. I just have that kind of facility to back-to-back movies sometimes. Yet very occasionally something comes along that totally stops me in my tracks, making this kind of condensed viewing impossible. Rare films that are so haunting or impactful that they require breathing space for reflection, contemplation.

The last cinematic release to achieve this for me was Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin; a film which managed to upset my biorhythms for days. Most recently it occurred on dipping back into Robert Altman’s filmography for 3 Women – a beguiling dreamlike experience which immediately submerged me in its languid, unsettling world and refused to let me go.

I’m the kind of person who is deeply affected by dreams. A vivid one can stay with me for hours, even days, totally upending my mood and thought processes. I become preoccupied. 3 Women left me in a similar state of distracted detachment. I had planned on following it immediately with the 1981 slasher flick The Burning, but was unable to. I was still stuck in 3 Women‘s dreamland. It was going to be a while before Altman’s film let me go.

This reaction is curiously appropriate given the film’s genesis. Having secured a reputation for prestige as one of America’s true auteur filmmakers of the era, Altman found himself in the unique position (almost impossible to imagine now) of being able to pitch whatever he wanted to a major studio, no matter how personal the project, and almost certainly receive financial backing. Altman’s clout was arguably at its peak when he approached Twentieth Century Fox with the idea for 3 Women, an idea that had appeared to him in a dream.

Now, reports suggest Altman didn’t have the film fully formed from this dream of his, but he had enough of an idea to build upon. He knew he’d have a desert setting, and that the story would concern at least two women and their merging identities. It was enough to convince the execs that there was likely a bankable film in it, so long as Altman kept his costs down. A comparatively meager budget was presented and Altman was allowed to do his thing with total creative freedom. This was before projects like Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate put the fear of God into studios when it came to bankrolling the dreams of visionary men.

Famously crafting his films through improvisation and collaboration, there was no shooting script for 3 Women, only a treatment which gave the project some shape. It’s self-evident that the idea was heavily influenced by Ingmar Berman’s art film Persona in which two women who live in close proximity start to blur at the edges, their personalities conjoining. 3 Women would turn out to be very similarly themed on identity; where it is defined, where it dissolves. Altman got the actors he wanted; Shelley Duvall was, by this time, a frequent collaborator, while his interest in Sissy Spacek predated the release of Brian De Palma’s Carrie, that film’s success made her involvement even more of a coup.

But while the story of the film’s genesis and production is in itself rather interesting, the end result is absolutely fascinating. One can only imagine the reactions back at Twentieth Century Fox when the finish product was unveiled to them. 3 Women is an American art film, and one whose influence I can see echoing into my favourites of contemporary cinema, even the aforementioned Under The Skin.

Scarlett Johansson’s impervious gaze in that film and her appearance as the ultimate outsider could potentially be traced back to Spacek in 3 Women. Her Pinky Rose is the character we meet first, initiating at a spa for the elderly as a new employee. Much of the film’s beginning sees her gazing at different aspects of her surroundings, often through mirrors (that Bergman flavour announcing itself). There is a feeling, even at this early stage, that Pinky is in some way chameleonic. She’s like a sponge, adapting herself to new environments, channeling it into herself. Early on she seems very childlike and impressionable, something which will change markedly as the hazy narrative progresses.

She is taken under the wing of Millie Lammoreux; a towering central performance from Shelley Duvall who wrote all of her motormouth character’s rambling monologues. Millie is a curiously sad character. Her response to the world appears to be exclusively constructed from the magazine articles she reads. The things important in her life feel like the list from a throwaway contents page; how to make a quick meal, the best way to decorate your home, how to throw a party, what’s in season to wear. She is a product of the media and considers herself an authority. Her self-belief is as strong as her ability to deny the realities around her. She paints herself as popular with the local men, but this doesn’t appear to be true. She believes she is well liked both at work and at her apartment complex home, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either. While their approaches to the world are miles apart, Pinky and Millie are also very similar in that their personalities actually appear disarmingly hollow, constructed thinly from external data as they fumble for how to be people themselves.

There’s something incredibly dreamlike in the way Altman presents this relationship and the environment it takes place in. The opening shots of the film (and several later) are seen through water, as though we are gazing into an aquarium. It makes us feel as though these characters are to be studied. The camerawork also subtly evokes the restlessness of a dream. Altman’s camera has a habit of drifting away to the side, as though the action we’ve seen has only been caught by happenstance. This might sound slapdash, but the effect is in fact the opposite. 3 Women feels very deliberately constructed, right down to the pacing of the editing; it’s slow, languid, but purposeful.

From the beginning the film is populated by little oddities to reaffirm this sense of unreality and duality. Pinky is preoccupied by a set of twins working at the spa whom she follows. This is immediately followed by the appearance of Millie following two other women out of the spa down the same path and at the same pace. In this instance Millie is equally fascinated (these characters are some of those that she perceives as interested in her when they’re not). Yet the pointed deja vu in this scene adds to the sense that Altman is building a purposefully flexible sense of reality; something he freely palpates later on.

3 Women 2

With this set in place, the viewer starts to question perception early on. Millie announces her favourite colours are yellow and purple. Very quickly after this she takes Pinky home to the apartment complex for the first time… which has a yellow and purple colour scheme. My immediate suspicion was that this place might not even exist at all, but rather it is a construct of Millie’s entirely. Given the tricky nature of the film’s loose narrative, that’s a somewhat far-fetched but still potentially credible reading.

Millie and Pinky move in together and it is here that the film moves into its second phase and the Persona elements become more pronounced. Pinky adopts the role of apt pupil, at least, that is, until Millie’s thinly constructed veil starts to shed itself. A planned party is a disaster because nobody turns up. Then, significantly, Millie manages to bring home local bar owner Edgar. Pinky is evidently disturbed enough by this to jump into the pool and straight into a coma. On the other side of this brief journey between worlds, Pinky emerges as an almost completely different character, more sure of herself and flirtatious around men. In tandem, Millie looses her confidence and sinks into the shadows. Pinky even starts writing Millie’s diary, so complete is the transference of power.

But that isn’t all. The film’s title is 3 Women, and the third role is small but pivotal. Edgar’s wife Willie is the third woman. Her appearances are slight but curious throughout the film. Dressed like an extra from McCabe & Mrs Miller, she is mostly seen decorating swimming pools with intense murals that depict mythological scenes of three women confronting a masculine beast. That she embroiders these images on both the spa and the apartment complex suggests she has a larger sphere of awareness and control over the situation. A God’s-eye view if you will (she also tattoos the grounds of a local men’s retreat; a playful place which paints the film’s scant masculine presence as juvenile and permanently distracted). Willie is pregnant and her disturbing birth sequence near the film’s end tilts the film nearly into the horror genre. When Millie comes away from the scene she staggers crimson-handed like one of Romero’s zombies. Duvall’s gaunt frame only exaggerating the nightmarish vision.

With both Millie and Pinky engaging in various degrees of flirtation with her husband, Willie seems to be the wronged woman here, and her handiness with firearms lends the film some perhaps misleading tension that jealous gunplay is on the cards. Instead Altman has a more confounding end to the film, in which we seemingly enter a new reality in which Pinky, Millie and Willie live together as relatives in an appeased community of their own, seemingly without men. A lingering panning shot from their home to a scattering of tires, suggests men have been removed from the equation altogether. The film ends.

Such narrative rabbit-holing won’t be for everyone, but few films capture so fluidly that sensation of slipping into a dream, of feeling the boundaries of reality becoming porous. Despite this blog’s title suggesting otherwise, my favourite David Lynch film (and favourite film full stop) is Mulholland Drive, and I’m surprised I’ve never heard 3 Women counted as a significant influence. Aside from the dreamlike qualities, the preoccupation with women and their blurring identities suggests this film had a great impact on Lynch. Not only that, but the film is at it’s most Lynchian when Millie supervises an old couple very similar to those that appear in Mulholland Drive under the belief that they are Pinky’s parents. Some of the exchanges in this stretch of the film are wonderfully absurd… or else boldly unexpected (their lovemaking in Millie’s bed). I could be wrong, of course, but it does feel like a strong precursor. There’s also something here that resonates with Sofia Coppola’s work; a daydreamy, lilting sensibility that she captures so well, particularly in The Virgin Suicides – again a film in which multiple female characters are perceived as co-mingled and inseparable.

It is that shot of the tires that perhaps holds the key to the film for me. 3 Women is delightfully open to interpretation but, for the record, I get a strong sense that the film is about Altman’s own attempts to understand the female characters he creates and about perhaps his (unfounded) fears of not presenting rounded, multi-dimensional people. At the beginning Millie and Pinky are, as described above, somewhat hollow. As they spend time together they can draw only on each other for inspiration. What seems like a fruitless endeavour, however, removes Altman from the equation altogether. He is, perhaps, Edgar; buffoonish, attempting to adopt alternating roles as father or lover with the women he is fascinated by, but failing to control them in either approach. They evolve without him, defining themselves and therefore existing in another plain altogether. He is left on the scrap-heap. The tires.

Perhaps. The great thing is that I sense that there is no answer. Like great art it can mean many things to many people. I realise I’ve gone on at unusual length this time. I’m sorry. Yet there are still things I’ve left out for comparative brevity (where can I get a copy of that score? etc). Such is the fascinating nature of this film.

I usually reserve this series for film’s I’ve spent a lot of time with and have seen over and over. 3 Women is new to me, but it’s place here is as  assured as any other. You know that beguiling feeling you get when a film seems to speak to you directly? I had that here. Immediately my favourite Robert Altman film (though there are many I still need to see), this is one I’ll be more than happy to keep revisiting, plundering its dappled waters for more of the elusive shapes promised beneath the shifting surface.

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