It's a testament to late director Robert Altman's status as an iconoclastic maverick filmmaker that he was still beloved and celebrated even though he zagged when you expected him to zig. After working for over a decade in television, he began his film career with a series of films that riffed on popular genres or films: The Long Goodbye (1973) was his Philip Marlowe noir, California Split (1974) was his take on The Sting, M*A*S*H (1970) brought an impish satirical edge to the war genre. But in 1975, Nashville became his masterpiece, a sprawling epic that both perfectly captured and slyly sent-up American life at that time. The film was embraced by the Academy, was included in what is arguably the greatest Best Picture Oscar lineup in history, and won over scores of critics and cinephiles alike.
So naturally, with new creative and monetary capital, what sorts of films does he make to capitalize on his newfound success? Well, he made Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), a sharp jab at the historical record of how the West was "won," and the subject of this week's "Hit Me…," 3 Women. Altman had stated that 3 Women was based on a dream he had, and the film unfolds as such. Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) arrives at a California spa and immediately forms a strong attraction to her co-worker Millie (Shelley Duvall), and soon becomes her roommate. However, Pinky may not be what she seems, and things only get weirder from there.
More after the jump.
Once again, Altman was reaching back and riffing on an earlier film. The difference was that while most of his other films tackled recent examples (California Split premiered less than a year after The Sting), 3 Women reached back to Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966). In both films, the central female relationship results in the two women being conflated into a single personality, a psychological melding of minds. But where Bergman kept the relationship between his characters more one-sided, Altman makes the Pinky-Millie dynamic more even-keeled, though neither would see it as such.
From the very beginning, Altman visually sets up this relationship in the spa. The camera pans around the pool before landing on Pinky, who's looking through a window into the pool area:
Her eyes are set on the skinny young woman in the pool, the one with the huge brown eyes, the one she'll be placed under the tutelage of, Millie:
What's terrific about this set-up is that it prepares the audience for what it should expect, given the information. Pinky is on the outside looking in, a loner who doesn't really fit in her (the casting of Spacek just one year after Carrie certainly helps in this regard). Millie is going to be our protagonist, since the camera is in the same room as her. She's surrounded by other people, even if they are guests of the spa. She appears well-liked, and is likely the "popular" girl at the spa, while Pinky is the outcast.
It's only a scene or two later that Altman subverts this set-up, by showing motor-mouthed Millie trailing behind her co-workers as they walk into the locker room. While the other women are having their own conversation, Millie just keeps on talking, conveniently ignoring the fact that no one else is interested in what she has to say.
It's a clever move, revealing that both of these women are social pariahs within this group. Suddenly it doesn't seem so odd that Pinky would be so drawn to Millie: they're kindred spirits, only Millie doesn't seem to recognize it.
This same sequence contains my favorite shot in the film, a magnificent construction that highlights all of these themes while subtly foreshadowing what will happen later in the film.
Millie is going on about Scrabble, yet there is a wooden post that separates her from the others, who are mostly ignoring her. Pinky is only seen in the reflection of the mirror, and is placed on the same horizontal plane as both Millie and Millie's reflection. In between Millie and her mirrored reflection is one of the twins that works at the spa, a subtle play on the twinning of Millie and her reflection and that of Millie and Pinky. There's a hint at what's to come, too: Pinky mirrors Millie, in much the same way that she will after her unfortunate dive into a pool gives her "amnesia."
I usually don't dive into the best shot right away in these posts, but it's hard to really talk about the rest of the film without discussing that set-up. As soon as Altman establishes the characters and their relationships (sometimes even before then), he begins dismantling and subverting audience expectations, rearranging these characters and seeing what happens. His claims that the film was based on a dream makes sense, since it's structured with surrealist dream logic and inflected with all manner of bizarre imagery. There's the repeated use of yellow and purple - Millie's favorite colors - and Pinky's mostly pink wardrobe. There's the way that characters will paraphrase or parrot lines spoken earlier in the film, as when Pinky's mother notes that the California landscape "looks nothing like Texas," a reference to Pinky's earlier musing that it reminds her of Texas.
And then there's the third woman, Willie (Janice Rule). Willie is the pregnant, mostly-silent artist wife of Edgar (Robert Fortier), a wannabe gunslinger with awful sideburns and oily sleaze who gets involved with both Millie and Pinky. Once again, there's twinning involved: Pinky's given name is Mildred, making this trio Mildred, Millie, and Willie. Willie spends most of the film painting murals of grotesque bodies in various states of implied carnality, including a tableaux at the bottom of the pool at Millie's apartment complex:
Once again, this dream imagery both represents and foreshadows the three women. The one on the far left is pregnant (Willie), while the other two are embroiled in conflict (Millie and Pinky). Altman returns to this tableaux a few times over the course of the film, most notably when Pinky takes her fateful dive:
Arms outstretched, Pinky appears to take her place within the scene, accepting her part in the destiny it foretells.
Above all, it's amazing what a visual film that 3 Women is. This isn't meant to be a knock against Altman; his films are always rich with creative compositions, and he remains one of the most visually underrated directors in American cinema. But what I mean is that the film seamlessly operates under believable "dream logic," which is often a tricky modus operandi for a filmmaker to tackle. To the modern eye, the film that automatically comes to mind when watching 3 Women - aside from Persona - is David Lynch's 2001 mind-boggler Mulholland Dr. Lynch has made a career of making films that function in the same surrealist dream logic, and if you look closely you can see the influence of this film in his works, whether it is intentional or subliminal. But where this style is typical of Lynch, it's a curious change of pace for Altman, so it's impressive to see how well the film holds together.
For the most part, 3 Women holds on to the sensibility of a lucid dream, one where you recognize that something is off about this reality but you can't place it. Then, in one of the film's most ambitious moments, comes a third-act hallucinatory freakout that would be straight out of Lynch's playbook if it hadn't been made around the same time as Lynch's first feature.
From then on, the film becomes opaque, much like the end of a dream that's descended into a nightmare. Even Altman himself has stated that he didn't know what the final scene meant, though you can't help but feel he was being coy. 3 Women was the work of a master showing off his range, after all, and it's an odd but remarkable testament to what an immense talent Robert Altman was.