3 Women is an understated wonder by the iconoclastic director, Robert Altman. The film itself unfurls like a dream, most likely because Altman first dreamt of the film before proceeding to shoot something that he was still figuring out. Altman was known for his almost laissez-faire filmmaking philosophy; he was one of the first directors who allowed his actors to stray from the script with a cheerful nonchalance and was known for leaning strongly on improvisation. “I feel the medium of film has not yet been explored,” Altman once said in an interview with Dick Cavett, expressing his creative desire to use the platform of film to create something entirely original. He does just that with 3 Women, a film that perfectly mimics a dream in its juxtaposing elements of lucidity and haziness.
The film explores the entangled lives of Millie Lamoreaux (Shelley Duvall), Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), and Willie Hart, (Janice Rose) three women living in an apartment complex in a California desert. A shot-by-shot scrutiny of 3 Women demonstrates Altman’s particular fascination with twins or doubles, and the idea that every individual searches for their perfect match. Millie, Pinky, and Willie are all solitary characters, even outcasts, who in the end seem to fuse into one monotone characterization of the female identity.
One of Altman’s fortes is his ability to create lively characters by giving them individual quirks and traits. In 1977 Duvall was won the Cannes Film Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Millie—a chirpy consumerist always dressed in yellow, blithely unaware that she’s ignored by those around her. Millie’s dialogue is a subtle but hilarious aspect of the film, as her conversation consists of a stew of clichés and brand names.
Pinky is the archetypal stranger-comes-to-town character who arrives mysteriously from Texas and joins Millie at her workplace, a geriatric therapeutic spa. Pinky is charmingly puerile, in one scene blowing bubbles into her coke glass at lunch with impish delight. When Millie is instructed to show Pinky the ropes at work, Pinky immediately idolizes Millie, going as far as reading her diary and moving in as her new roommate. Willie, the preganant wife of the owner of the apartment building, is the third woman. She is a sullen and mostly mute character who dresses like a pioneer from the wild west and spends her time painting mysterious murals of menacing serpentine creatures. Gerald Busby’s flute-heavy soundtrack picks up whenever Willie enters a shot, establishing Willie as a tragic, feminine force.
3 Women attests to Altman’s love for developing strong female characters, making him a particularly unique figure in Hollywood. While male roles exist in 3 Women, it seems only Willie’s philandering husband Edgar (Robert Fortier) drifts into focus, and even his character remains vague and distant. Edgar is an embodiment of traditional male stereotypes, defined by his motorcycles, beer, lust, and gun-slinging, but the other men in the movie are merely objects of Millie’s fascination.
Of particular curiosity is the intriguing use of water throughout the film. During a climactic scene, Pinky jumps into the pool in an attempt to kill herself, and when she wakes up from her coma, her character has endured what seems to be a rebirth as she and Millie have exchanged personalities. Altman has stated that the water that flows occasionally between his shots should be seen as the amniotic fluid surrounding a fetus. The opening scene of the film depicts old people descending into an exercise pool at the geriatric spa; a clear juxtaposition of birth and impending death. Altman, however, warns against the overuse of allegorical interpretations saying, “it's the weirdest thing. We're willing to accept anything, absolutely anything, in real life. But we demand order from our fantasies. Instead of just going along with them and saying, yeah, that's right, it's a fantasy and it doesn't make sense.”
Daring in its sheer bizarreness, 3 Women contains a power that can only be described as ‘Altmanesque’ and is an unforgettable, spellbinding cinematic masterpiece that should be viewed more than once.