The long-neglected middle child of art cinema’s triptych of psychodramas surrounding misplaced/mistaken/stolen female identities—between Ingmar Bergman’s refined and reserved Persona and David Lynch’s sexually uninhibited scene-stealer Mulholland Drive—is Robert Altman’s obtuse and brilliant 3 Women. Long unavailable on video, the film gained a cult reputation in part for Altman’s famous pitch to Fox executives (he walked in and told them he wanted to make a film about fragments of a dream he had while his wife was in the hospital)—and one has to wonder about the unlikelihood of such a pitch passing muster with today’s buttoned-down and creativity-aversive Hollywood bottom line. Only in a career as unorthodox as Altman’s could a film as willfully anomalous as 3 Women be considered something of a culmination of one of the director’s most noticeable concerns: the sociological patterns of human behavior and in what manner does a fundamentally fragmented populace attempt to forge cohabitation.
Millie (Shelly Duvall) is a would-be social honeybee (metaphor transposed to reflect her obsession with the color yellow), but she is blithely unaware that her would-be friends show no indications of reciprocating her attention. (At times, it nearly seems like the film is a warm up to The Sixth Sense, since many simply choose to ignore Millie outright.) Pinky (Sissy Spacek) wanders into the spa where Millie works and lands a job there. It doesn’t take long for the innocuously puerile young girl to develop an obsession with Millie. Fascinated with what she sees as Millie’s social impenetrability (which is really denial), she eventually moves in with her. The film’s third woman is Willie, the pregnant owner of the apartment complex where Millie and Pinky live; she’s mostly mute and paints serpentine murals vaguely depicting feminine reptiles reacting violently to masculine assertiveness. It’s when the first predictable sparks of roommate friction fly (followed by a suicide attempt) that the film takes a sharp left turn into a mental and literal no man’s land, proposed when Pinky abruptly drops her childlike habits and confirmed with a bravura dream montage that’s far more baroque and menacing than one expects from Altman.
So, admittedly the film finds the-director-alternatively-known-as-“American Maverick” in woozy territory. Despite being one of our most unpredictable directors, Altman is typically sloughed off into two convenient and narrow categories: expansive, bustling grand opera and small scale character studies. But only with a good amount of compromising and stretching can the majority of Altman’s films even halfway squeeze into these antithetical paragons. Nashville and Short Cuts are seemingly model candidates in the former phylum, what with their busy Vienetta layers of dialogue and their exploration of random connections. But to tidily file them into the first category, one has to ignore the many scenes in Short Cuts that are extraordinarily intimate; in fact, there’s rarely a scene that involves more than three people (unlike Nashville, it’s pretty easy to discern which characters are in the background). Even more to the extreme, a significant portion of Nashville is actually devoted to the internal epiphany—the moment that Lily Tomlin decides to have a doomed affair with Keith Carradine, Gwen Welles deciding that being goaded into performing a striptease against her will is a price she’s willing to pay for the chance to sing with her idol Ronee Blakely, Keenan Wynn stewing in his own anger at his wife’s funeral.
But unlike Persona or Mulholland Drive, which focus their attention on female-female fever dreams with such intensity that two inevitably become one, Altman’s similarly transient approach to narrative consequence is as much about social behavior patterns in general as it is a portrait of interpersonal crises of identity. It does so by doggedly emphasizing the titular trio of lost souls as abnormal simply out of their fundamental disrespect for the culture of marriage and best friends (a culture subliminally buttressed by Millie’s stack of women’s magazines that, in the absence of a companion, have become her own role model). Altman frequently emphasizes this numbers fetish with frequent shots that isolate reflections of Millie and Pinky against glass, sometimes mocking their attempts at forming a couplet with a well-placed mirror turning a cozy two into a cumbersome three. When one of the spa workers tells Pinky “We all don’t like the twins,” it’s hilarious not because of the comment’s randomness, but because it is so stultifyingly perfect. Of course the twins (who walk in step and seem to hold conversations with each other merely through glances) would be the target of jealousy and hatred; in a parched pasture where everyone’s on the hunt for their cosmic soulmate, they were given a free pass, automatic companionship.
That the film’s very essence as a member of the aforementioned cinematic family (we’ll call them “the sisters”) is often ignored (odd woman out) only enhances its unique take on the communally regimented power of the societal diad structure. It’s as though even the deadly serious Persona and Mulholland Drive turn up their noses at this gawky black sheep of a film. Because, as with most Altman films, weighty matters are often balanced by blindsiding, playful tonal shifts—shifts that occasionally lean toward the anarchic and the snarky. I don’t know if they gestated in Altman’s original dream, but details such as the way Millie always shuts her car door with a little flap of her dress hanging out of the bottom or one of her prospective beaus who listlessly fakes a cough to avoid dating her are the very essence of Altman’s omniscient bemusement. More blasphemous, Altman will occasionally slip in a line of dialogue (“I don’t know who she thinks she is”) that seems to deliberately wink at the artifice and dreamlike slipperiness of his scenario, coming perilously close to shattering the paralyzingly stark spell—something that the sisters would hold tantamount to giving head on the first date. But, for all its lumpy qualities (which shouldn’t be a hurdle for those who’ve fallen in love with Altman’s equally worthy bastard children The Long Goodbye and Brewster McCloud, among others), 3 Women is a daring piece of cinema that glides along the edge of weirdness and somehow manages not to fall off. And I’ve never seen a film that’s more poetic and accurate about the radical extent that the human personality will bend and morph in an effort to cleave to its object of desire.