Iconoclastic director Robert Altman’s dream project 3 Women was precisely that: Altman always claimed the film’s title, lead actresses, and theme of identity theft came to him in a dream. Accordingly, 3 Women is awash with aquatic imagery that signifies the royal road to the vast reservoir of the unconscious, from its opening high-angle shot of an extremely pregnant woman, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), limning an empty swimming pool with an eerie snake-woman mural, seen through the filter of an intervening aquarium, to the hot springs at the rehab center where the other two titular women, Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), work, and a heady dream sequence late in the film that’s framed through a titling, sloshing wave machine.
Just as the freeform, free-associational dream provides 3 Women with a formal design, the ever shifting and blurring boundaries of identity becomes its archetypal theme, evinced by the film’s enigmatic tagline: “1 woman became 2. 2 women became 3. 3 women became 1.” Identity, the film asserts, is always a work in progress: One need not be a card-carrying Lacanian to note the frequent mirror staging, doubling, and tripling the women’s figures in reflection. As if this weren’t indication enough, the always generous Altman throws in a set of twins, whose standoffish and uncanny self-containment makes them targets of dislike from their co-workers at the spa, and prompts Pinky’s not-so-innocent query, “Wonder if they ever forget which one they are?”
Altman has always placed greater value on fluid camera movement than precision framing, and has expressed his lack of patience when it comes to aesthetically “pretty” lighting schemes, preferring to shoot with available light. His trademark directorial techniques, unhurried zooms and pans that investigate confined spaces with an intimacy that turns the viewer into a Peeping Tom, are on display from the start: The camera moves circumspectly around the interior of the Desert Spring Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, picks out Millie at work, guiding elderly patients through their water aerobics routine, before lighting on Pinky, walled-off behind glass like a sea creature on display, soaking up her new habitat.
With the freshly scrubbed sensibility of a newborn babe, Pinky is all input, taking her cues from what she observes, and the pattern she chooses to cut the cloth of her identity from is Millie, who’s assigned to show her the ropes. Soon enough, they’re rooming together at the Purple Sage Apts., where Pinky can take her emulation of all things Millie to the next level. Thing is, Millie herself is a readymade assemblage, a yawning void stuffed to the brim with supposedly perfect details of trendy cuisine and modish fashion culled from magazines and mail-order catalogues. Oblivious to a fault, Millie is completely unaware that everyone around her actively dislikes her, deriding her as “Thoroughly Modern” Millie, all the while she doles out nuggets of secondhand wisdom and attempts to interest all and sundry in the pettiest details of her vacuous existence. In his commentary track, Altman notes that Duvall came up with the bulk of her character’s dialogue, food recipes, and diary entries, in keeping with the collaborative, improvisatory style of filmmaking he preferred.
After work, Millie takes Pinky to Dodge City, a rundown watering hole with a dirt bike track and firing range out back for the menfolk, run by mother-to-be Willie and her man, Edgar (Robert Fortier), a career stunt double and all-around macho type. Dodge City is a compendium of outmoded roadside attractions, a chimerical simulacrum of the Old West, where gun-totin’ hombres (in this case, law-enforcement types) gather to prove and reprove their mettle. Consigned to their fringes by her femininity, Willie haunts the corners of the establishment, hanging her gunshot-riddled sand paintings on the walls, and decorating the adjacent empty pool with murals depicting sexual monsters (per Altman), scaly serpentine women and naked men, their raised knives and dangling penises alike sources of menace.
Midway through the film, rejected by Millie in favor of a fling with Edgar, Pinky attempts suicide by throwing herself into the Purple Sage’s swimming pool, a leap of unfaith that puts her in a coma. Playing up the baptismal death-and-rebirth metaphor, by the time Pinky emerges from the coma, she’s a new woman. Trouble is, she’s Millie: She dresses like Millie, acts like Millie, even composes new entries in Millie’s diary. When Millie brings her parents to her hospital room (played by real-life married couple Ruth Nelson and John Cromwell, the blacklisted director of the noir classic Caged), Pinky denies them, sending them away in befuddlement. No longer the childlike naïf, she’s now a full-grown woman, stealing Edgar away from Millie. It’s a tribute to Spacek’s protean versatility that she marks these radical behavioral shifts with seeming ease.
But the personality-grab comes to a grinding halt after Pinky has a bizarre, symbol-saturated dream, seeing herself soaked in blood and threatened by figures from Willie’s paintings. Reverting to the intermediate persona of a nymphet (half child, half woman), Pinky seeks solace from Millie, whose own maternal instinct is on the upswing. When a drunken Edgar stumbles in on them, informs them that Willie is having her baby, they rush off to assist. The act of childbirth, yielding a stillborn baby boy, is the pivot around which the final realignment of the dramatis personae hinges: Willie takes on a grandmotherly aspect, while Millie bursts into full-fledged maternity, assuming the mantle of Willie’s flowing garb, with a once-again girlish Pinky snapping her gum and reluctantly going about her chores.
It isn’t much of a stretch to see here Robert Graves’s famous Triple Goddess: crone, mother, and maiden. But it’s given an ominous edge by the suggestion that Edgar’s been killed in a mysterious firearm-related accident, as well as the final, ponderous pan across the Hart property, ending in a lingering shot of a trash heap. Is this the grave of the buried child? In its off-kilter combination of Wild West attributes and off-handed surrealism, this ending (the film as a whole, for that matter) certainly suggests a scenario that’s concocted from equal parts Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, with maybe just a smidgen of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona thrown in for good measure.
Criterion's 1080p Blu-ray transfer has undoubtedly received a little extra TLC: It's cleaner, clear, sharper, and brighter than the previous SDVD. Color saturation is deeper and fuller, especially the ubiquitous yellows and purples. Grain levels rarely overwhelm, except during Pinky's superimposition-laden dream. The English LPCM 1.0 track is more than adequate to deliver ambience, bringing out background sounds like the lap and drip of water in the rehab spa, articulating Altman's trademark overlapping dialogue, and foregrounding Gerald Busby's often ominous score, heavy on the bassoon and clarinet.
Identical to the DVD package. Altman's commentary track is one of his most listenable, overflowing with the director's native intelligence. Rarely does he drop off into silence, or simply tread water recapping the admittedly slender plotline, instead retailing anecdotes from the 3 Women's production history that nicely convey his dry, observational humor. At one point, he enthuses about Spacek: "She was the greatest thing to come along the pike since hash."
If you've ever wanted to take the plunge into the deep end of Robert Altman's brainpan, Criterion's impeccable Blu-ray transfer presents the ideal jumping-off point.