Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women’: A freaky ’70s movie to love

Screens on Sunday, August 30th, 2015 at L.A.’s Cinefamily theater. For complete info, click here.

Robert Altman said that 3 Women came to him entirely in a dream, and watching the movie you believe him. For 3 Women is a film that forms a trio of bewitching weird sisters with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Altman’s work being the 1970s, Southern California stoner take on a story of eerie identity transference between women.

Altman even cited Persona as an inspiration, but what’s great about 3 Women is that instead of fashioning a heavy-handed riff on Bergman, Altman took a similar idea and rooted it in a time and place he knew intimately, giving the film its own very distinct identity. (Make that, its own very distinct, unstable identity.)

Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) is a well-meaning physical therapist who works with elderly patients in a group home in Southern California, near L.A. but also far enough away from it that the milieu is still part sleepy desert town, part exurbia. One day Millie is assigned to train a new hire, one Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), a freckled pixie whose girly-girl vacuity shows an astonishing lack of worldliness even for someone in her early 20s.

We gradually come to see how Millie is defined by self-delusion — there’s a real pathos to the character. Pinky, meanwhile is a seeming blank slate who steadily, stealthily burrows her way into every aspect of Millie’s life. 3 Women only really gets going when Pinky movies in with Millie, whereupon Millie promptly starts getting the Single White Female treatment, to put it in terms that postdate Altman’s movie. Identity theft is the least of it, or rather, this is identity theft made all too literal. In classic American fashion, Pinky has left her small town (in Texas) and come out west to reinvent herself in Southern California. She goes from being a sidekick or kid sis to Millie, to seeming like an unhinged acolyte, to wanting to be Millie.

Altman grounds this story in such mundanity that the film’s detours into strangeness during the first hour — the bizarre murals adorning the apartment complex where Millie and Pinky live, for one thing — resonate more forcefully. But the mundanity is so pronounced that it’s possible to even become a little impatient, even as you paradoxically feel yourself getting caught up in the movie. Adding to this viewer’s initial fidgeting, there’s a tiresome score that at times sounds like one long flute solo.

The Polish movie poster for 3 WOMEN.

David Lynch had only just completed Eraserhead, his first feature, the year 3 Women came out, but Altman’s film anticipates Lynchian disorientation as the story starts heading into a narrative wormhole. Pinky eventually gets a metaphysical makeover, and the character’s startling transformation provides Sissy Spacek with a wonderful opportunity to display her range, reminiscent of the near-uncanny makeover Naomi Watts undergoes in Mulholland Dr.

3 Women takes another sharp turn when we descend into one character’s nightmare, a sequence that’s far creepier than anything I ever expected to find in Altman’s oeuvre. It’s a lulu of a bad dream, with visual motifs and moments from throughout the film overlaid on top of each other in a murky, distorted bad trip. The light, airy desert atmosphere of the preceding 90 minutes is replaced by a dark, heavy, swampy vibe that’s instantly oppressive. There’s the barest hint of schlock to the nightmare sequence, but I mean that as a compliment — the whiff of the disreputable is part of what gives the scene its kick.

The nightmare is exactly what the movie needs at this point, breaking it open. With the nightmare, the film leaves realism behind, or more accurately, once we come through the nightmare, reality has been transmuted. A dreamer who wisely holds back from imposing a meaning on his own dream, Altman provides no clues as to how we should feel at the final fade to black.

Shelley Duvall shared a Best Actress Award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for 3 WOMEN.

When I finished watching 3 Women, I had no idea what it all meant, but I was impressed by what an intense, absorbing experience it was, a head trip of the highest order. Then the skeptic in me harrumphed that maybe it was all hogwash, a pitch-perfect portrait of a time and place that went off the rails into Jungian mumbo-jumbo near the end. But the next day, that skeptic in my head had to be garroted by my inner cineaste. I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about the film, and in fact loved turning it over in my mind.

It’s not just that the cryptic ending preserves the movie’s dreamlike ambiance. It also ties in with how 3 Women captures its era, without feeling like a Statement or bulletin on The Way We Live Now. A story about women rewriting their self-definitions — and their relations to each other, and their whole environment — with the outcome uncertain, feels just right for 1976–77.

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