By Chris Kriofske
Robert Altman has said that the idea for the singular and utterly surreal 3 WOMEN came to him in a dream. He had just left another film he was set to direct at Warner Brothers because of a dispute with the studio. Shortly thereafter, his wife became seriously ill. While in the hospital with her, he spent a restless night where he claims to have dreamed up the film’s title, location and two lead actresses. He relayed a brief synopsis to Alan Ladd, Jr., head of production at 20th Century Fox, and encouraged him to make it (without a finished screenplay) for $1.5 million. The end result is surely one of the most challenging and personal films to ever come out of a major American studio.
Set and filmed in a forever hazy, sparsely populated California desert town, it opens with the pigtailed, improbably-named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek, aged 26 at the time but not looking a day over 12). Having just arrived from small town Texas, she obtains a job at a spa for the elderly. Her trainer is Millie Lammoreaux (Shelly Duvall), an exceptionally self-assured, chatty devotee of fashion tips and recipes gleaned from women’s self-help magazines. Although the rest of the world practically ignores Millie, Pinky is instantly awestruck. She swiftly infiltrates herself into Millie’s life and eventually becomes her roommate at the Purple Sage apartment complex. The third woman of the title refers to Willie (Janice Rule), the quiet, withdrawn, very pregnant wife of Edgar (Robert Fortier), a washed-up actor who owns the complex. While the enigmatic Willie doesn’t nearly appear onscreen as much as the other two women, her role is pivotal, especially once something startling and baffling happens to Pinky midway through the film.
You could argue that 3 WOMEN is a relatively straightforward, slice-of-life character study in its first half that grows increasingly elliptical and ambiguous as it proceeds. However, the film feels fairly odd from the very first scene: we see Pinky at the spa and her haunted, trancelike gaze, cut with obliquely framed shots of the establishment’s elderly patients wading in a pool, all set to Gerald Busby’s demanding atonal woodwind score. We also catch glimpses of a wavy liquid line drifting across the frame. According to Altman, this comes from placing a wave-making machine (which he calls a popular “kitsch art” object of the time) in front of the camera lens. All of these elements coalesce to create a world both peculiar and unfamiliar. Adding to this sense of fluidity, Altman shot the film in sequence without a script (he constructed a fifty page treatment with writer Patricia Resnick) and integrated some locales as they were found (such as the spa). He also allowed Duvall and Spacek to improvise much of their dialogue and character quirks, ”Millie’s diary entries and favorite recipes apparently all came from the inimitable Duvall herself.
Altman has described the film as impressionistic, more like a painting than literature. You can see what he means in its elaborate, highly controlled visual design, from the careful use of colors (Millie’s wardrobe and apartment are nearly exclusively done up in cheerful yellows and whites) to the special emphasis of mirrors. Often, we view reflections of Duvall, Spacek or Rule where both the reflection and the actual person appear simultaneously, leaving the viewer unable to determine which is which. Water is also omnipresent: in addition to the spa, significant developments center on the apartment complex’s pool where Willie paints her strange murals teeming with mythical, minotaur-like creatures. The wavy lines from the opening scene also reappear in key moments throughout, most notably in an eerie, abstract four-minute dream sequence late in the film that seems more akin to the work of experimental filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger than Altman’s contemporary New Hollywood peers.
Many cite Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA as a major influence here; it’s an obvious but apt comparison given both films focuses on shifting identities, rituals in female relationships and overall mythological bent. In some ways, it’s a departure for Altman, a deliberately slow-paced tumble that contains precious little of his trademark overlapping dialogue. Although a far cry from a large ensemble piece like NASHVILLE, its poetic spirit and ultra-specific sense of place is anticipated in McCABE & MS. MILLER, while its fixation on illusion and psychodrama can be seen as far back as IMAGES. But 3 WOMEN reaches further into the unknown than those earlier efforts. Its cyclical, nearly inscrutable final scene is deliberately left open to any number of interpretations, leaving one to indeed liken the entire project to a dream or possibly a series of reoccurring, overlapping dreams.
At the film’s initial release, the climate for maverick American filmmaking was rapidly changing and on the wane, for instance, STAR WARS came out around the same time. Like many of the director’s other films of the period, it disappeared from theaters within a few weeks and the studio lost money on the distribution costs. Despite acclaim for Duvall (who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival) and Spacek (named Best Supporting Actress at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards), the film rarely screened outside repertory houses and archives thereafter; it never even received a home video release until a Criterion Collection DVD appeared in 2004, making it one of Altman’s least seen works for ages. Thirty years on, 3 WOMEN arguably remains his most unique achievement: a showcase for two brilliant, idiosyncratic actresses enveloped in an uncommonly personal tale concerned with mood and feeling over logic and denouement. He hoped audiences would leave the film thinking, “I didn’t know what it was about, but I liked it”, which he considered to be the best thing one could say about any film.