‘We don’t like the twins. You’ll learn about them soon enough.’
The 1970s were a golden period for Hollywood – the keys and wealth of production studios were given to directors with a now almost unprecedented level of control. Robert Altman’s 3 Women was conceived in a dream the director had, it was pitched without a completed screenplay and given the go-ahead by 20th Century Fox.
Not only did Altman not have a finished screenplay, he actively expressed his desire to shoot 3 Women without one and it shows in the organic nature of the film’s unfolding narrative. The film, much like dreams, feels disjointed and jarring. For anyone that enjoys the full gauntlet of answers by a film’s end, 3 Women is likely to frustrate, but the woozy tone is a perfect fit for a film dripping in ambiguity and mystery.
As the title suggests, the film is centred around 3 women and their complex, shifting relationships. Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a charming young girl who quickly becomes infatuated with fellow co-worker and eventual roommate, Millie (Shelley Duvall): a deluded woman who seems forever getting ready for dates with men we never see and hosting parties for people who won’t be attending.
She talks the ears off fellow colleagues who can barely hide their indifference as Pinky sits in awe from the sidelines. ‘You’re the most perfect person I’ve ever met,’ confesses Pinky who appears oblivious to Millie’s foibles which are at once amusing and strangely upsetting – it’s difficult not to feel sorry for her. Spacek and Duvall are just phenomenal.
The third woman is Millie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who wanders Altman’s frame listlessly, painting unsettling images of oppressed women and who perhaps represents a third state of womanhood.
And again, like dreams, there is not one clear objective answer to what it all means. It starts off almost as a comedy of manners about isolation and friendship before descending into a surrealist nightmare culminating in one of the most brilliant dream sequences ever filmed, complemented by Altman’s wispy cinematography and roaming, off-kilter camerawork.
Its clear foundation, though, is based on the idea of shifting personalities as the three women become increasingly entwined with one another. Mirrors, water and reflections are an important motif – Millie and Pinky have conversations in which one or the other is often out of frame seen only in a reflection in a small mirror. Millie at one point stares out of a window as the light hits her in a way as to produce two Millies. ‘I wonder what it’s like to be twins,’ muses Pinky at one point, ‘Bet it’d be weird. Do you think they know which ones they are?’
There’s something quite sobering about the fact that 3 Women released in the same year as Star Wars (also produced by Fox). It was money magnets like Star Wars that enabled studios to indulge the likes of Altman and his more offbeat, commercially unsuccessful projects. With studios increasingly worried of financial ruin like that experienced by United Artists after the release of Heaven’s Gate, sure fire money makers became the only traversable path.
Incidentally, Star Wars (40 years later) will soon have its seventh installment in the series this coming Christmas while it seems inconceivable that a film like 3 Women could ever be made on the Hollywood dollar today. This rarity, however, only makes Altman’s beguiling, illusory masterpiece even more precious. (9)