Update 2018: How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded, evasive truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always at the beginning of 3 Women, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare by the conclusion. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.
What’s so fascinating about 3 Women is that it retains so much of Altman’s typical sensibility, from his evocative sense of place to his shaggy, non-committal attitude toward the forward push of narrative, but it twists those features into an entirely different, slantwise milieu. To wit, 3 Women elastically mobilizes Altman’s typically wide, expansive canvas, for instance, not to conjure a community-spanning horizontal weave, as in Nashville, but to probe the psychological lonelines of two women locked into a particularly demented pas de deux of self and other.
Compared to Altman’s typically wistful realism, then, 3 Women is a more mannered vision, a West that doesn’t shuttle us into the chaotic instability of the social world so much as stage a difficult, near-unfathomable tableau for us to parse, one where the fractured, contorted intimacy of two women is more than enough to disorient our conception of selfhood. Like several of Altman’s earlier films, this is still a vision of a dilapidated West. And this “West” is no less a canvas for the self, no less a place where people go to find themselves, even more than 75 years after the “death” of the “real” Wild West. But in Altman’s wonderfully misshapen variation, the West, and Western fiction, is also where identities blur and bleed, where spectral figures wander across the land and seem to diffuse into space itself, where one’s sense of self is tested not against the might of an unforgiving landscape but against the soul of another. Call it McCabe & Ms. Ullmann (and Andersson).
Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s.
Case in point: 1977’s 3 Women, a film that would never in a million years attain the credibility or respect of Altman’s far more conventional stabs at unconventional filmmaking. This, as is almost always the case, is not diametrically opposed to the more important fact that it is easily one of his five best films. In fact, the two realities are intimately related. For 3 Women is absolutely not a conventional film, but it is also deeply unconventional by even Altman’s standards. This was a director who rampagingly subverted the Hollywood aura of glowing, individualist storytelling by training his eye on the spaces between people, on the ways in which they existed in relation to one another, rather than on the individuals themselves. He almost always favored large casts to this effect, creating tapestries of space which people inhabited but did not define. He also broke from both the classical Hollywood sweetness this old man was raised on as well as the new school grit of so many of his contemporary New Wavers. Instead, he occupied a sort of middle-ground, pulsing back and forth between zippy froth, and cantankerous mournfulness that felt just as easily at home in American naturalism and European stylization. His were always carefully composed films, but they exuded a casual quotidian-ness that came with moving away from the rampant grime of so many American films of the ’70s. More than any director of his time, there was a sense that his worldly, offhand style knew both human highs and human lows, and could freely move between the two to forever avoid strangulation in the stubbornness of singularity.
On some level, 3 Women follows suit. It is absolutely not a work about an individual, but it dials things back from Altman’s usual social focus to tell a tale of only two women (rest assured, there is a third floating around them and drawing them together) and the barbed, irregular, even broken spaces in between them. Furthermore, the cues it takes from the New Wave are not the typical ones filled by the cadre of esteemed ’70s directors he so often butted heads with, but neither are they Altman’s normal ones. He doesn’t take the clipped harshness of a Godard but instead the more poetic, expressive, analytic quality given to the men like Ingmar Bergman (indeed, Bergman’s Persona is an unmistakable influence, even to the point where this film could be considered an homage). As dangerous as so many New Wave works are, 3 Women seems almost Kubrickian in its much more European, style-as-substance quality. If it owes much to any other ’70s works, the likeliest comparison is the unstable quality of Nicolas Roeg’s works such as Don’t Look Now, and earlier (mostly impressionistic) comparisons place the film all over the map. It occasionally seems like Altman’s take on the chilly abstraction of so many European works of old, and if it isn’t quite “Altman’s Swedish film”, it may be the most Swedish film of any major American director released during the ’70s.
And as those of us fluent in the art of watching Ingmar Bergman films know, “narrative” is not exactly the easiest stone within to overturn. Thankfully, the film takes us fairly far up a certain observational river that a general through-line persists. The first half of the film trades heavily on the sort of quietly nervy character-focused storytelling very much of a kind with many of the less propulsive ’70s directors. We are introduced to the shy, awkward, passive Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) as she begins her first day at a new job in a small, almost deserted California town. Having presumably moved there from her native Texas, she takes up residence as an attendant at an elderly folks’ home/ rehabilitation center where Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), also from Texas, shows her the ropes. Millie is a far more blunt, kinetic, generally spur-of-the-moment figure who thrives on activity, yet she takes a liking to Pinky, and the two end up rooming together in Millie’s small, homey apartment.
As things progress over an intentionally ambiguous swath of time, Pinky’s aimless timidity wears on Millie, who approaches her as a passive foil for personal use. Things don’t quite raise to a boil, but there’s an underlying tension that simmers to an icy chill, with Millie ever more frustrated and Pinky seemingly unversed in the governing principles of normal society. One night, however, Pinky has an accident and wakes up from a short coma with amnesia. More than that though, she has a new personality, seemingly having taken up the caustic, social qualities of Millie and pushed them to their limits. Millie soon discovers that it is now Pinky who is using her, going so far as to intentionally drive her out and take over Millie’s old apartment for her own sake.
Sounds like the makings of a thriller? In a very broad sense, 3 Women might qualify, but it is certainly not a very “active” film in the conventional sense. Everything about it serves to obfuscate and disassociate in the way a barn-burning thriller might, but the tone is languid, oneiric, and more fractured than an uncoupled thrill ride could allow. The first half of the film visually emphasizes emptiness, aimlessly drawing out the bored, mundane qualities of the two women and how uneasily they fit together. Millie is almost always photographed in motion, while Pinky is largely still, yet neither ever seem to be going anywhere. Altman explores Western iconography (most memorably in the film’s poster, admittedly), studying the wide landscapes of Western life but interspersing worn-out, modernist elements in his shots to reveal anything but the Wild West. The location, and the lives that dot it, are not lively and exciting but instead tepid and workaday.
All the while, however, Altman subtly infuses premonitions that preface the coming storm. Domesticated space has seldom felt so malevolent as in the introductory bathhouse crawl where space seems to exist solely of hard angles and cracked visages and people shuffle like post-Morton cadavers disturbed from the grave. Equally disturbing is the gaudy yellow and purple cross-hatch of Millie’s apartment. Most disconcerting however is the ghost town bar, a gloomy and hollow mask of Western identity that mocks the artificial nature of Western films (the film is about a California that looks “just like Texas” after all). The details of masks and artificial identities that will come to blows in the film’s finale are prefigured by the ghostly mise en scene from the very beginning, with Altman unveiling seemingly innocent spaces as spectral, even terrifying visions of American disaffection underneath.
At one point, when Millie is off-screen talking to Pinky, who is placed in front of us while sewing in a mid-shot, Millie mentions something about going on a date, and Spacek manages to move her eyes as if twitching in worry or rolling in bored disgust just ever so slightly without actually moving her head one bit. It’s a profoundly subtle gesture that hints at unexplored motives in her character, but because her head is positioned downward toward the sewing machine in an expression of her timidity we can’t quite tell if its a reflection of worry or mockery. It’s even more telling in light of Altman’s habit of allowing lots of leeway to his actors to improvise, giving the whole film an in-the-moment, twitchy quality that proceeds the coming back-half which shatters the wonderfully everyday quality of the film to bits.
On the word, “shatter”, however: Altman quite literally shatters the film throughout, playing with mirror and glasswork imagery to bifurcate the faces of his two protagonists, all but turning the film into a sinister hall of mirrors that cut and split their identities into two, drawing the two females together only by separating each from themselves. Things follow suit in the second half where Altman produces what is, without dilution, perhaps the greatest psychological horror film of a decade positively spilling over with stunning psychological horror films. On the surface, he continues to allow his camera to glide with unrestrained ambition as he did in the first half of the film. Except while the camera reflected a carefully composed, mundane quality in the first half, in the second it seems not so much to walk as stalk, making every little object or tick all the more malevolent and confrontational. It moves around his characters, but also into them too, splitting them and cutting through the characters in unconventional ways that create a film of jagged edges just ready to break the characters apart and deconstruct their identities. It spools their psychological innards on the screen while leaving them at an intentionally frustrating, elusive distance.
About this distance, Altman seems to understand that the two women aren’t depictions of real people. They are, rather, modulated, composed performances of identity, reduced to certain bare essentials of passivity and activity drawn to each other in an unrestrained need for completion. In the second half, they overtake one another, having never really understood the other or confronted their alien desires, and they take on each others’ identities, not so much lovingly completing a whole as refracting the jagged edges of a mind onto each other and seeing the parts fight for control of the whole. It is for this reason that the film operates on such a detached, even alienating level that befuddled an American audience usually smitten with Altman’s deeply human gestures.
At just about every level, 3 Women is an inhuman film. It is inhuman in its heavy, unremitting structural gamesmanship where its very bifurcated narrative structure is a metaphor for its character progression, and for the way these two women are cleaved in half by each other. It is inhuman in its casting of two famously bug-eyed actresses who bear a certain abnormal similarity to one another and resemble aliens in the world of conventional film depictions of the bold and the beautiful. It is inhuman in the way it asks them not so much to give performances but to exist on camera. In cold, calculated inhumanity however, it finds hard human truths about self and other, and if everyone won’t fall head over heels for it, that’s all the more reason why others will be forever in its debt.