To call 3 Women merely haunting is to do it an injustice, because it's really one of the most brilliantly creepy films ever made. Director Robert Altman always claimed the picture originated in a dream, and you have to take him at his word -- the film has the mark of nightmare upon it, weaving all the metaphorical potentialities of the Palm Springs, California desert into a miasma of menace and death. Though nothing wholly unrealistic occurs, the movie resonates as something supernatural; in this, Altman's film is the precursor to Todd Haynes's Safe, another horror movie fashioned out of everyday living.
The plot involves the relationship between Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), newly arrived in Palm Springs, and Millie Lammoureux (Shelley Duvall), who has been assigned to train her at the geriatric health spa they work at. Pinky, for mysterious reasons, takes an obsessive shine to Millie, whose chirpy mundanity and feckless attempts at sophistication make her a pariah to all other humans. The two become roommates, and Pinky takes her fascination to a new level, reading Millie's diary, transcribing her social security number, and engaging in other behavior right out of The Stalker's Handbook.
One night Millie brings home Edgar, the husband of the film's Third Woman, Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant and all-but-silent artist who paints half-simian, half-human creatures as pool murals. When Pinky objects to Millie's tryst, Millie lashes out, spurring Pinky to take a high dive from the apartment complex landing into the pool. She then goes into a coma, and in a nod to Ingmar Bergman's Persona, awakens to the thought that she's actually Millie, assuming herformer idol's identity.
But where Millie only aspired to a kind of winning loucheness, Pinky emerges from her slumber as a natural, stealing the attentions of Edgar and the clique of disdainful neighbors who have so overtly shunned Millie. But when Edgar seeks Pinky's company the night Willie is giving birth, Millie sends Pinky for help as she attempts to midwife the baby. Pinky never goes for the doctor, however, and the infant is stillborn. The three women then appear to have some sort of psychotic break; when next we see them, they have coalesced into a quasi three-generational family, playing the roles of mother, daughter, and grandmother. Absent from the arrangement is Edgar, who, we are told,has been killed in a shooting "accident."
That's a heavy enough plot, but what makes 3 Women so truly disturbing Is its primal, elemental aesthetic. In the rawness of the characters' psyches, in the dreamlike atmosphere created by shooting through mirrors, fish tanks, and water; in the arresting motif of posturing, bellicose animal-human hybrids that almost functions like a visual Greek chorus; in the flute solos that seem to emanate from another time and place, the film burrows under your skin, implanting an unshakable sense of isolation. Adding to the feeling of vulnerability are various depictions of human physicality as degradative, from the opening spa shots of decrepit limbs bathed in the hazy desert light to the portrayal of a sexual embrace as not carnal but animalistic, almost instinctual.
But the film's most consistently negative focus is on another basic human need: food. Shelley Duvall, said Altman, was allowed to write much of her character's dialogue, and she chose to give Millie a penchant for mass-produced foodlike substances, as Michael Pollan might call them. "I'm famous for my dinner parties," Millie brags, before unpacking a smorgasbord of processed edibles. From canned tamales to Pringles to "bananas dipped in chocolate rolled in Rice Krispies," Millie is a great promoter of the corporate-cookbook lifestyle. Extolling the virtues of tuna melts, she says "They're easy, they only take about 15 minutes to make." And when Pinky stains her dress with one of Millie's supermarket-bought shrimp cocktails, there's an unappetizing conflation of blood and food, and a suggestion that all organic processes have been transformed into something harmful.
Millie's lack of nutrition awareness is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. In her, we see a wellspring of diminished American aspirations, a life lived out of mass-circulation magazines, and the treatment of their prescriptions as inside information rather than lowest-common-denominator fodder. "Oh good, the Neiman Marcus catalogue," Millie says when opening her mailbox. For someone who is consistently ignored, it must be a comfort to be taken notice of, if only as a consumer. "You know the Breck girl?" she says to yet another unreceptive audience. "Well they're having a contest to find a new one and I'm going to send my picture in."
If one can see past the satire of Millie's clinging to whatever's on offer by the mass culture, her extreme isolation becomes the stuff of nightmares, Shelley Duvall, with her gawky physiology and plain looks, was one of the more exotic female presences in 1970s cinema. Duvall was not a trained actress, and it shows in her performance, which won the best actress award at Cannes. One might ask: are her spacey expressions and flat intonation indications of complete confusion in interpreting the text? Or, has she captured some precise quality of lonely eccentricity? An ordinariness so paradoxically extreme as to seem garish? When, like the grand-finale Norma Desmond, she descends the stairs at her apartment complex, regaled in a hooded bright yellow bathrobe, one understands the poignancy of bad taste -- the desperate longing for notice, and a looking for love in all the wrong places saying all the wrong things wearing all the wrong clothes.
Years later, Millie might be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. But here Altman sees in her not so much a mental disorder as a sociological barrenness, a human expression of the arid desert locale. Despite the various strands of advice for practical contemporary living she has picked up, she is unable to knit them into a coherent life, and her lack of originality has left her easy prey for both marketers and strutting, vacuous vultures like Edgar.
But if Millie is a hapless navigator of life, Pinky is as yet too raw and unformed to be viewed as completely hopeless. She first appears in the film sporting the sensibility of a child, blowing bubbles in her Coke, adding salt to her beer, burping. She's a blank slate, which is perhaps why she views Millie with unjaded eyes. "She just seems like she does everything right," Pinky gushes. Like the twins who work with them at the spa, the two are connected, sharing the same real first name and place of origin (Texas). The film is full of such doublings -- reflections, simulacra, a general theme of inadequate substitution. In this environment, the West itself no longer seems vital. Where the concept of Dodge City may have once connoted a certain amount of romance, here it's been relegated to the name of a dive bar owned by Edgar, with a defunct miniature golf course and a fake rattlesnake. Edgar himself was once a stunt double for Hugh O'Brian in the old Wyatt Earp TV show, his claim to whatever authentic virtues that particular history once held now twice removed.
In fact, in the person of Edgar, 3 Women is Altman's strongest indictment against the male sex. Altman is not known as a director with a feminist sensibility, but look closely at his work and it's not hard to find a critique, from a distance, of male balefulness and puerility. Think of the juvenile antics of the two leads in California Split, unconsciously homoerotic and exclusive of the need for feminine relationships, their emptiness masked by engagement in games and competition. The critic Richard Corliss, in his obituary of Altman, addresses MASH, the director's most commercial success, and one which has often been criticized as sexist:
"For some viewers, MASH was an exercise less in Olympian misanthropy than in leering misogyny, especially in its twitting of the prim Hot Lips Houlihan as a secret sexpot worthy of being exposed before the entire company as she took a shower. The curtain falls, Hot Lips is revealed naked, the medics applaud at their practical joke and feminism takes a nasty hit. (I could name one young bride who, after storming out of a screening room at the end of that shower scene, literally went home to her mother, telling her husband, "I don't want to live with someone who thinks that is funny.")"
Yet, what I have always found most memorable about the scene is its direct aftermath, when Sally Kellerman as a humiliated Hot Lips heads straight to the camp commander's tent. "This isn't a hospital, it's an insane asylum!" she sobs, threatening to resign. But the colonel, who is in bed with a nurse, couldn't care less, and tells her to go ahead and quit. One might ask: With whom does Altman's heart really lie in that particular moment? And in the football-game finale, when Kellerman's character has been reduced to that of an inane cheerleader, an intentional statement seems to be on the table about the effect on a woman who wielded authority, no matter how priggish, by the film's leering, sniggering wolf pack.
3 Women is much more overt in its disdain for masculine values. Here, Altman sees men as brutes, sexual opportunists, or both. The cops who hang out at Edgar's bar, faceless behind their helmets, are shown several times riding dirt bikes, full of sound and fury in the manner of swarming insects, expending their male energy in purposeless circles. The other male group activity we see is target shooting, and again it reads like an expression of sheer aggression and little else. Edgar himself is a drunken, boorish caricature of machismo, hiding behind dark sunglasses and a cowboy hat; he is the analogue of the ranting creature with the huge phallus on display in his wife?s mural. Edgar and Willie, for their part, exchange one accusatory look but nary a word in the entire film, and perhaps the movie?s most surrealistic element is the fact that they actually once chose to wed.
Arid landscape, severe personal isolation, a sterile culture, enervating male aggression... in such a milieu, the stillbirth that comes at the film?s climax seems the logical conclusion. The real horror of that moment, though, comes in Willie?s cooing and clinging to the dead baby, and her complete blindness to its lack of life."
If there?s anything optimistic for viewers to hang their hat on in this grim event, perhaps it?s the perfectly reasonable reaction of Millie, which is sheer hysteria. While she is portrayed as a ridiculous figure in the film?s first half, as things begin to unravel and she is beset by escalating strangeness, she seems to awaken from her own metaphorical coma, finding her voice and a previously suppressed humanity. The psychic rupture of the three women in the final scene represents a rebellion against an array of devitalizing forces, and through its oddness one can choose to interpret it as a lone sign of hope in this otherwise devastating masterwork.