3 Women (new to Blu-ray from Criterion) is actually about one woman, the proverbial woman, the basic unmodified and unhampered woman tossed out into the cold, male dominated social order to assume her hindered, unimportant position. It challenges the he-man hierarchy and dispels the theories of females as the weaker, or witless, sex. It sets into motion a sequence of revelations and startling transformations that beg for explanation as they speak their own, incredibly alluring language. But mostly, what 3 Women represents is moviemaking in its highest order. It is resplendent with beautiful imagery, amazing performances, and inquisitive issues that keep you both glued to and guessing at the screen.
This is Robert Altman at his apex, on top of the mountain and looking down on the minions of mediocrity. 3 Women is also a feminist pre-manifesto deconstructed. It’s the notion of femininity diagrammed and dissected. It’s the final act of the paternalistic society’s stage play as the good old boy network is swept back into the primordial ooze and the non-objectified superwoman takes control of the political climate. It’s a film as figment, a fractured mirror on the caregiver and the careless. It’s magnificent. It’s frustrating. And it’s one of the best movies of the ’70s.
Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) works in a geriatric spa in the California desert. One day, she is asked to train a new girl, a childish imp named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Among her co-workers, Millie is a vacuum, an empty space where no one dares tread, but Pinky finds the mannered gal fascinating. She even begins to emulate her. When Millie’s old roommate moves out, Pinky takes her place and soon, she and Millie are inseparable. Hanging around a favorite drinking spot, an off-road tavern built around a ghost town theme called Dodge City, they befriend owned by Willie (Janice Rule) and Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier). The couple also own the gals’ apartment complex, The Purple Sage. Willie is an artist. She paints strangely erotic alien murals. Edgar is an ex-stuntman who hides his machismo behind a roguish rummy’s grin. Willie is pregnant with their first child.
Millie soon realizes that Pinky is becoming far too much like her. She feels her life disintegrating and her identity slipping away. When a planned dinner party for friends falls apart, Millie hits the town, looking for excitement. When she comes home with her far too familiar “date,” it drives a wedge between her and Pinky that results in a near-tragedy. The resulting psychological fallout from the event leads to personality and paradigm shifts, with roles reversed and even lost. Another tragic event leads to a final resolution between Willie, Millie, and Pinky. It is these 3 Women who must reclaim the nature of the female, to save it from being constantly eroded away by everyone around them.
3 Women is a godsend. It represents Altman’s ultimate interior masterpiece (it can be argued that both M*A*S*H and Nashville have bigger scopes to scrutinize). It is a magnificent mixture of reality and fantasy fashioned into what in the end looks like an attempt at a modern mythology made out of the snippets of sense memory. Based in a personal dream that Altman once had and liquid in its tone poem parameters, it’s a film that suggests just the slightest amount of story, but manages to create an entire eerie universe out of visuals, location, and intention.
It contains perhaps two of the best performances ever given by actresses on film and manages the Herculean task of turning the deserts of Southern California into an oasis of unfulfilled dreams and lonely lost souls. 3 Women is all about the process of dignity development, of discovering who you are and what you represent within the natural order. It moves beyond its simple men versus women, us versus them philosophy to paint a portrait of humanity as a work in progress. As the tagline (taken from a French movie poster) suggests, it’s the saga of how one woman entered into the life of two others and found a facet that eventually connected them all. The way in which this intermingling is accomplished, though, leads to questions of sanity vanquished and innocence vanished.
On the most basic of levels, 3 Women is a movie about personality theft. It’s the story of how an unfinished female named Pinky enters into and subsumes the life of a lonely medical assistant named Millie. Millie is also an empty entity crafted out of advertising and social stigma. She is formed out of fashion magazines, educated by articles she reads in the beauty parlor periodicals, and is living a life in which all homes and gardens are better and her housekeeping incurs a seal of goodness. Yet she is all but invisible to those around her. She is ignored and mocked—never to her fragile face, but behind her ever-bending back—and yet feels utterly connected to the individuals around her.
When Pinky walks in, she is childhood and brattiness personified. She disregards the rules and shirks her responsibilities. To this wayward woman-child, the world is a playground and everything’s a toy, including Millie’s existence. Thus begins the slyest of plans: the gradual takeover of Millie’s quintessence, of her knowledge of processed foods and quick kitchen shortcuts. Pinky wants to take all the hopes, the dreams, and the designs that this isolated social butterfly has fixed for herself and swipe them, using them to create the soul she is sorely lacking. How this psyche stealing occurs and the backlash that results from it are at the core of 3 Women‘s plot.
On a deeper, more monumental level, 3 Women is the representation of a new folklore for the female, a reinvention of the traditional Greek design with all its classical internal elements accumulated and acclimated for the new world order. Yet there are other elements of the fairy tale, symbols and icons that reveal the truth inside this sometimes surreal character study. Altman’s use of visual representations is legendary, but nowhere is it more prominent than in 3 Women. Water is a major thematic image in 3 Women; it’s tide turning, cleansing, life giving, and essence drowning properties are present in almost every single frame. Millie and Pinky work for a geriatric home where mineral springs provide the majority of the medicinal healing. Willie uses the bottom of swimming pools—both abandoned and active—as the canvases for her freaked out mosaics. Pinky meets one of her two Fates at the hands of a body of liquid. And all the women are finally bonded by an event that starts with the breaking of water and utilizes the liquid to protect and surround a prenatal life.
As a result 3 Women is living art. Altman uses his camera as a paintbrush, his performers as his oils, and the desert as his canvas to blend and smudge and spackle together a work that transcends its elements to mimic the greatest of great works. Altman’s direction can be mannered and manipulative at times, but here he seems completely liberated and fluid, moving his mysterious motion picture along on his skill with tone and his ability to engage. Like David Lynch, who explored his own split personality parameters in the equally evocative Lost Highway, this is the closest Altman’s ever come to capturing a dream on film, and the results are spellbinding. 3 Women is a lost treasure from the 1970s, as important in the oeuvre of auteur theory as Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. It represents the pinnacle of American moviemaking, the opportunity to see a unique voice functioning well within his aesthetic capabilities while exploring new areas of motion picture nuance.