Imagine a filmmaker going into 20th Century Fox and announcing that he’d had a dream the night before, which he wanted to turn into a film. Now, imagine him walking out of the studio a few minutes later with the go-ahead on the project. Well, such was the power of Robert Altman and such was the vision of Alan Ladd Jr. in 1977. This would never happen today. The result of that simple pitch was 3 Women—the most dreamlike and perhaps strangest film in Altman’s oeuvre. It feels a bit like Bergman’s Persona (1966) and a bit like Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Altman acknowledged the former as an influence, and the probability that Lynch was unfamiliar with 3 Women seems remote. They’re all similar, yet each is its own film.
If Altman’s film seems the weakest of the three—and it does—it’s because it has dated the most. Both the look and sound (musical score) of the film not only smacks of its era, but gives it the feeling of 1970s TV. I suspect that’s deliberate on Altman’s part, since the film isn’t just a dream on the nature of identity, but a specific comment on way external forces shape our sense of identity. Millie (Shelley Duvall) has—none too effectively—created her identity entirely out of women’s magazines and advertising. It is natural then that the film has to reflect its era in a way that Persona and Mulholland Dr. do not.
The film begins with and constantly returns to images seen through moving water. Altman said this is meant to be amniotic fluid, so the whole film could be read as being from the point of view of the womb (Altman’s Through Amniotic Fluid Darkly?). Alternatively, since one of the film’s three women, Willie (Janice Rule), is pregnant, it can also be read as the specific vision of the baby in her womb. The trick to 3 Women is that there is no definitive way of reading it. That’s clearly deliberate. On the audio commentary of the DVD, it’s obvious that Altman himself was still reading it.
There’s only the wispiest of stories. In essence, a fresh-faced kid called Pinky (Sissy Spacek) gets a job at a never-very-well-defined rehab facility that appears to specialize in water treatments. She’s shown the ropes by Millie, to whom she develops an immediate attraction. Millie’s talkative self-assurance is everything Pinky wishes she could be and she attempts to become like her without realizing that Millie is virtually a non-person, a projection of advertising. People almost never listen to Millie and many ignore her completely, as if she isn’t even there. (When one of the other women at the facility remarks on Millie by telling Pinky, “I don’t see her too much,” the line has deep significance.)
Blissfully unaware of any possible shortcoming, Pinky moves in with Millie, living in constant awe—and a degree of fear—even though Millie’s disastrous efforts at being the person she’s tried to create are ever more apparent. Then, in a moment of disillusionment, Pinky attempts suicide in the apartment-complex pool—an act that ties Millie to her (through guilt) and which reverses their roles. When Pinky comes out of her coma, she has become Millie—only she’s better at it. But the events don’t stop there, and it’s impossible to be sure where reality ends and dream logic takes over.
All of this is vaguely overseen by Willie, who says almost nothing and spends her time painting huge, unsettling pastel murals of reptilian women and menacing men. What all of this means is left as a mystery—as much to its creator as to the viewer. This either makes 3 Women a maddening essay in pointlessness, or a deeply involving work that leaves the viewer unnerved and off-balance. Which response occurs depends entirely on the viewer.