Supposedly Robert Altman’s inspiration for 3 Women came from a dream he had, as with many of the most original ideas out there. Admittedly, in some ways, the resulting project feels like his rendition of an European art-film. It has some roots in Bergman and Polanski, while transposing the action to his usual locales that are inbred into the fabric of America — places like the California deserts and Texas.
The film revolves around two rather pathetic individuals who meet while working at a facility for the elderly.
One is passive and dependent, the newbie trying to learn the ropes as she becomes acclimated to her new position. The other believes she is independent and exists self-assured, but really she is an oblivious outcast in her own right. Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) becomes the teacher, in a sense, and savior of timid young Pinkie (Sissy Spacek). She offers her a home and makes countless recipes that are meant to be enlightened, but were probably even antiquated in their day.
Furthermore, Millie drinks, smokes, shoots guns, and likes to have a good time, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Except, the only problem is, no one seems to want to interact with her. All those in the apartment complex avoid her like the plague, talking about her quietly in their little enclave. Meanwhile, she likes to tell herself that all the boys are fawning over her. She’s one of those people.
Pinkie makes her seem important, but Millie also grows tired of the other girl’s constant presence. She’s so needy, so withdrawn and homey. That is, until the film reaches its main turning point…
Pinkie ends up in the hospital and Millie stands by her faithfully, even going so far as getting in contact with her roommate’s parents. They come and they go. Eventually Pinkie returns home a different person.
It is around this point where the film’s constant foreboding finally reaches its apex. Pinkie has nightmares following her disconcerting transformation. In this stretch, it’s akin to Persona and Repulsion as she simultaneously becomes a version of Millie and begins to enter psychological distress.
The film at times feels like an expansive lucid dream constantly steeped in symbolism and uneasy anxiety for no apparent reason. The narrative is constantly intercut with enigmatic underwater images of the human form lurking under the surface of the pool. It becomes a film swimming with psychological anxiety, estrangement, and identity disorder. However, it unfortunately deteriorates into an incoherent jumble at times. Although, if it is based on Altman’s subconscious, then perhaps he hit the nail on the head.
Its score also becomes overly theatrical, bringing to mind NBC movie mysteries like Columbo, but otherwise, 3 Women is a perplexing piece from one of the cinematic masters of subversion. We exit the film with the eponymous three women and no idea of how we quite got there.