The trouble with triples

3 Women, Robert Altman’s most elusive masterpiece, makes its DVD debut

Sometime in 1977, while his wife was frighteningly ill and in hospital,
Robert Altman went home to get some much-needed sleep and literally dreamed
of his next movie: all he knew was that it would be set in a desert, have
something to do with identity theft, star Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek,
and be called 3 Women. Those were the days before Altman’s commercial
cred was lost, M*A*S*H and Nashville were still fresh victories, and all
Altman had to do was stop by the 20th Century Fox studios on his way to the
airport, throw his skeleton of a pitch at Alan Ladd Jr. and walk out a few
minutes later with a picture deal. He didn’t even miss his flight. 3
Women, now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, is an enigmatic
jewel from that magic period of creative freedom for Altman. His dream
infused the film not only with the raw materials of cast, theme and setting,
but with a strange atmosphere of aquatic veils, exaggerated colours, steam,
reflections, shadows and rising heat. Yet it also delved into a small,
isolated pocket of the U.S. swathed with a loneliness, superficiality and
frailty amidst dusty, kitschy bits of Americana like mini-golf courses,
shooting ranges and dirtbikes. It’s perplexing as all hell, and
I’m not certain it ever quite comes full circle in the way it strives
for, but it makes as lasting an impression as anything Altman’s ever
done. The first moments are transporting: a woman painting a mural is seen
through a tumbling aquarium. As Gerald Busby’s atonal score heightens
the slightly alien aura, the images dissolves to an indoor pool in which
elephantine legs intermingle with aged torsos walking and wading. The pool is
a spa for the elderly and infirm, a place where young women gently guide
patients through simple exercises. The spa’s model employee is Millie
(Duvall), an oddly beautiful and utterly by-the-book young woman possessing a
certain women’s-magazine glamour. We meet Millie as she trains Pinky
(Spacek), an eager, almost childlike new employee. “You’re a
little like me, aren’t you?” Millie asks Pinky at one point, and
Pinky takes the comment to heart. What develops between these two women is
hard to put your finger on, but it’s as though Pinky, whose own
personality as a bit of blank slate, latches onto Millie as a role model, a
form of hero worship that develops into something at once profound and
sinister. For all its emphasis on ambiguity and atmosphere, performances are
crucial to 3 Women. Duvall is beguiling and pathetic as Millie—the
magic of her performance is partially attributable to the fact that she
practically invented her character, writing not just the diaries we hear her
read, but all the shopping lists and recipes as well. (Duvall even bought the
groceries to make Millie’s ridiculous cheese-spray hors
d’oeuvres.) And Spacek transforms seamlessly amid the metaphysical and
narrative leaps of the film’s second half, going from child to
temperamental seductress and back to child again. As well, both actresses are
funny, wearing their characters’ abundant eccentricities as though they
were totally normal. 3 Women owes something to Ingmar Bergman’s
Persona, but it lives in its own separate world with its own psychic
implications. Everything in 3 Women conspires to some larger, unspoken event:
the Bodhi Wind murals of sexual monsters painted in empty swimming pools by
Willie (Janice Rule), the third woman of the title; the snobbish twins at the
spa who seem content to communicate only with each other; the appearance of
an elderly couple who may or may not be Pinky’s parents but who haunt
Millie with their otherness (and their repellent, aged appearance). What does
it all mean? The good news is that Altman’s commentary is often
illuminating without ever trying to supply a solution. That task is up to us.
V 3 Women Written and directed by Robert Altman • Starring Shelley
Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule • Now on DVD

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