3 Women May 29, 2016
Disconcerting is the way a disconnect can exist between your perception of yourself and the perception others have of you. To attempt to figure out how the two differentiate is an exhausting endeavor, hardly mattering because most are adept at understanding their presentation of themselves and how to maintain it alongside their self-possession.
But for every person of the latter type, there’s another appearing to be completely oblivious to their surroundings. Personality is a given, but varying is how it is viewed in the eyes of another.
Robert Altman’s unsettling 3 Women is a character study fascinated by this phenomenon. It watches in disbelief as its titular trio studies, reflects, shifts, and eventually merges into one entity. Like in Ingmar Bergman’s elusive 1966 masterpiece Persona, we don’t so much feel as though we’re watching a foray into cinematic realism. Three Women is, rather, invested in manipulating what’s expected of any given character, how changes in their dispositions can make way so long as the filmmaker behind it all chooses to.
But the movie is so unnerving because its manipulations aren’t so obvious. Contrasting to later day homages like Mulholland Dr. and Certified Copy, there is never a direct sense that we’re watching the director’s version of a seductive mirage. Such a quality isn’t apparent until the last half hour or so, when drastic shifts in character swirl around us with curious menace. What Altman is trying to accomplish with 3 Women is hard to easily grasp. But its hypnotism is unbreakable. It’s akin to an unforgettable dream, inexplicable yet fetchingly enigmatic. We want to know what’s lurking beneath the surface of it all. We’re certain that there’s more than what meets the eye.
It takes the shape of a horror movie, utilizing voyeuristic camerawork and an eerie soundtrack to increase our anxiety. Nothing truly horrific is ever presented to us per se; I think Altman, whose writing and directing is unrelentingly mysterious, figures the best way to make 3 Women’s idiosyncrasies avoid pretension is to establish an unstable environment, an environment on the verge of collapsing or on the verge of violence.
Its three leadings characters, though three-dimensional and instantaneously graspable, only accentuate this disquiet. We feel as if we know them, but their auras are lined with a sort of unpredictability. The film stars Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose, a timid and cryptic young woman from Texas in California hoping to start a new life. What she’s running from (if she’s running) is unknown. Pinky is the kind of person who disappears into the background of every room she enters, too withdrawn to make herself a noticeable presence in another’s life.
She quickly gets a job at a daytime spa which specializes in caring for the elderly and the handicapped. There, she meets and takes a liking to Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), an extroverted employee who appreciates Pinky’s attention but is apprehensive toward a full-fledged friendship. Pinky is a little strange, after all, and Millie is the life of the party, the prettiest and most liked person in the room.
Or so she thinks. Whereas Pinky is reticent in her existence but seemingly happy about it, Millie believes she’s a glamorous catch when the truth is far and away. Men she flirts with mock her behind her back. The women at work all but ignore her when she attempts to converse with them. And yet she seems to be blissfully unaware of everyone’s indifference. She's talkative, poised, and smitten with herself.
But some of her security departs when her roommate moves out, leaving her alone in a world she's convinced revolves around her. Millie posts an advertisement on the bulletin board in the hospital cafeteria across the street from the spa. Pinky notices and enthusiastically accepts. Before long, the women are living together, initially symbiotically. But as their relationship develops, unexplainable dislocations in their personalities come to light. And the changes are not expected nor average, like roommate disagreements or spats over romance. Something fanciful, something almost fantastical, is at hand. What it is, though, is unclear.
3 Women only seems to heighten in its perplexities as it goes on, escalating in its erraticism until it doesn’t seem to be of this Earth. How it specifically develops I cannot say. But who are Millie and Pinky? Are they roommates, beings always meant to be together, or are they a single person seen as two? The inclusion of the third woman adds to the mystery. Named Willie and played by a largely silent Janice Rule, she spends most of her time in the desert at an abandoned recreational center turned bar, wasting the days painting disturbing murals on much of the decor. Pregnant and peculiar, she seems to exist outside of the natural world, drifting in its shadows, never to be tied down.
How these women are all connected is laborious to pin down. But I believe Millie is the only “real” character among them. Pinky is as an extension of the latter, reflecting her best and worst qualities with exaggeration, and Willie is an embodiment of the doubts she has about herself, always stalking the premises but never intrinsically there. Within the first hour of 3 Women, Pinky is what Millie should be — understanding of her rejection by society and aware of her loneliness. In the second, when the two have effectively switched personalities, Pinky is what Millie strives to be — enchanting to all and dangerously alluring. Millie believes herself to be one way but is actually another; Pinky shapes herself into what she finds entrancing and does it better. Willie represents her kept hidden disillusion with herself.
But such observations only make for general analysis. Three Women is better viewed as a movie that we cannot quite put together. It finds its setting in a land distinctly separate from our own, where the prosaic is profound and where no one knows themselves as well as they’d like to think. The film’s obsession with dismantling one’s sense of self makes it remarkably macabre. In this cruel world, knowing who we are is all we have. And yet, its intrigue comes from the unraveling of Millie’s own comfort in her discernment of her identity. Days later, I’m still agitated by its audacity.
Three Women is certainly one of Altman’s most offbeat films, and is certainly one of the great cinematic wonders of the 1970s. Duvall and Spacek give sensational performances (made all the more difficult due to Altman’s insistence on extensive improv); the atmosphere is unearthly and influential. But I quake in fear when looking at the film with a retrospective eye. There’s something invasive, something personal about it, that chills me. I don’t believe I can ever watch it again. But what an unprecedented, brilliant movie it