3 Women

Robert Altman's 3 Women is a bizarre, unsettling, darkly funny and mysterious film. It is virtually indescribable, proceeding according to its own skewed, dream-like logic, presenting the frequently absurd dialogue and characters with an utterly straight face, balancing carefully between portentous, densely symbolic drama and loony black comedy. The film centers on the relationship between two women, both named Mildred: the relentlessly chatty Millie (Shelley Duvall) and the shy, awkward young Pinky (Sissy Spacek). The two women meet at a job, working at a spa caring for elderly patients, and the girl-like Pinky, who seems more like a child than an independent young woman, instantly idolizes Millie and latches onto her. The two women soon become roommates, despite Millie's offhanded nastiness towards the other girl, and Pinky's attachment to her new friend only becomes more intense and creepier. The third women of the title is Willie (Janice Rule), a slightly older woman who runs a local bar where Pinky and Millie sometimes hang out. The pregnant Willie says little throughout the film, though her disturbing paintings of monstrous, Egyptian-influenced figures locked in combat show up everywhere. Together, the three women represent three generations of womanhood, with Willie as the grandmother, Millie as the mother, and Pinky as the child. This linkage between the women only becomes clear during the film's coda, but before that point it's obvious at least that Pinky is like a free-spirited child, excited by everything, always asking innocent questions, playfully blowing bubbles in her drinks.

The film is a strange character study of these three women who, in different ways, are dissatisfied with their lives. Millie is a chipper, cheery woman who presents herself as a popular girl with an endless string of boyfriends and suitors, but in fact she's strange and lonely, unable to connect with anyone. Her stories about herself don't match up with reality at all: it's clear that no one wants to be around her, and rarely does anyone even acknowledge her constant stream of non-sequitur anecdotes and self-promotion. Her outgoing persona is a mask, disguising her inner loneliness and desperation, and she has a whole vital fantasy life about how all these guys want her, how she has countless men wrapped around her fingers when in fact she can barely get anyone to acknowledge her existence. Although Pinky outwardly seems very different, she is similarly lonely and strange, similarly disconnected from everyone around her. At work, everyone ignores her as thoroughly as they do Millie, and she seems immature, arrested in her development, like a child sent out on her own before she was really ready.

The relationship between the roommates reverses, however, following a confrontation over Willie's washed-up former stuntman husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), who's clinging pathetically to his TV cowboy persona. Millie comes home with him one night, and when she yells at Pinky for judging her desperate promiscuity, Pinky throws herself off the balcony into the pool below, a pool decorated with Willie's sinister paintings, seeming to writhe with the waves and ripples in the water. When Pinky emerges from a coma some time later, she's assumed Millie's personality, writing in Millie's diary, hanging out with the guys at the apartment complex who Millie had always wanted, even coming on to Edgar. She begins to seem like a more successful and well-liked version of Millie, garnering the attention that Millie had always wanted so badly herself. Faced with this change, Millie begins shrinking into herself, losing her flirtatious demeanor, becoming more like the indrawn girl that Pinky had previously been.

Altman presents this drama of psychological transference and doubling with a detached, unsettling directness that enhances the strangeness of the story and the characters themselves. The film is a complex web of symbols, from Willie's paintings with their exaggerated sex organs and violent poses to the constant use of water to overlay the characters. At various times, there seems to be a filter of water wavering across the frame, turning the women's faces blue, its waves flickering up and down to cover the screen and then recede. Sometimes these shots might be motivated by the presence of a fish tank, but more often the water appears without any obvious motivation, as though there were waves constantly churning in the characters' heads, foreshadowing Pinky's watery plunge and subsequent mental realignment.

Doubles are also important here. Millie and Pinky work with a pair of twins (Leslie and Patricia Ann Hudson) who don't talk to anyone but each other, who are locked into their own private world, maintaining an abstracted distance from everyone around them. Pinky wonders aloud what it would be like to be twins like that, and raises the possibility that maybe they switch places every day, deciding which twin they'd like to be that day. Pinky obviously wishes for that kind of fluidity of identity, the ability to become someone else, to trade places with Millie, who she worships so deeply. The film's second junction point, after Pinky's near-drowning, is preceded by a lengthy dream sequence in which Pinky dreams of superimpositions and doubles, seeing Millie's face doubled as it had been in the mirrored surface of Pinky's hospital room, seeing Willie doubled in her grief over Edgar's cheating, seeing the face of a plastic witch from Willie's bar superimposed over the face of Pinky's mother, who Pinky insists isn't really her mother. When she wakes up from this dream, she seems newly vulnerable, more like her old self, and this prepares her for her final transformation, when, in the film's mysterious coda, she seems to have formed a makeshift new family with Millie and Willie, taking on the role of obedient but sullen daughter.

Implicit in this ending is a commentary on gender roles and expectations, on the place of women. By the end of the film, the three women are inhabiting an older ideal of the family unit, but notably without any men in the equation. With their quirks and their idiosyncrasies, these women never quite fit in anywhere, so they have to create their own space, their own family to replace the absences that are otherwise in their lives. Millie didn't know her parents, who didn't want her and abandoned her to various foster families. Pinky rejects her parents, who are surprisingly old considering their daughter's youth, and who seem utterly disconnected from the world, reacting even to the news of their daughter's coma with a curious abstraction and lack of emotion. And Willie's only family is Edgar, a philandering drunk who cheats on his pregnant wife and pathetically lives in his past, when he at least flirted with fame and success by appearing as a stuntman on TV. Clearly the families these women have are inadequate, and by the end of the film the women only have, and only need, one another.

All of which implies that 3 Women is a very heavy movie, but in fact it both is and isn't. The heavy symbolism and dour mood is constantly being subverted by the goofy, absurdist, intentionally banal dialogue, which everyone delivers with a deadpan nonchalance that only winds up making it more disarmingly comical. There's something purposefully off about the film's tone which enhances the sense of wrongness and disconnection in these people's lives. Millie in particular is a source of loony comedy, as she's constantly babbling about hula dancing, "hot dates," and her low-budget recipes for tuna casserole, pigs-in-a-blanket and cheese on crackers. There's something helplessly funny about her, and about Duvall's earnest performance, like the way she very sincerely explains the difference between English mustard and French mustard as colors, or the stunned expression on her face as she watches the childlike Pinky gulp down a whole glass of beer after pouring salt into it and blowing away the top of the foam. The film seems especially disconnected from reality during the visit from Pinky's supposed parents (John Cromwell and Ruth Nelson), who bring along a prayer placard — "for the kitchen," the mother helpfully explains, in a line that is unaccountably funny in context — and who seem generally unattached to the same reality as the other characters. But then all of these characters seem to be inhabiting their own individual realities, separated from normal society and fully invested in the odd alternate world of Altman's film.