3 Women (1977)

Robert Altman | 2hr 4min

For a long time in 3 Women, there are only two women taking up the majority of Robert Altman’s story. It isn’t until the final act that the significance of the third woman emerges – a figure whose appearance has been subtly laced all through the film. While Millie and Pinky have been engaged in a covert battle of identities, the middle-aged Willie has lingered in the empty swimming pool of the apartment block where they reside, painting freakish murals of mythical, reptilian creatures. Many of them seem to be locked in one-on-one duels with equally grotesque clones of themselves, their tongues lashing out and sharp teeth bared in anger. Rendered in light pastel hues, these two-dimensional frescoes form unsettling backdrops to several scenes of conflict between Millie and Pinky, but Altman also often weaves them in with simple camera movements and cutaways, dissolving close-ups of our characters over their grotesque features.

Not only do these monstrous frescoes form stunning backdrops to so many scenes of drama – the metaphors they weave in carry so much formal purpose, reflecting the central battle of identities.
Pinky’s suicide attempt marks one of the most powerful uses of these symbols too, as the monsters lurk beneath the surface where her unconscious body floats.

The formal connections he is drawing are abstract but powerful. These are the monsters who live in Millie and Pinky’s minds, fighting for the right to inhabit a singular, unique identity in a culture where individuality is everything. In this case, Pinky is the aggressor impeding on Millie’s territory, threatening to force her from the space she inhabits in society. Shelley Duvall is incredibly well-defined in this role, immediately establishing herself as a well-liked, slightly vain, and innocently flirtatious young woman living in smalltown California. Also, she has a clear fondness for the colour yellow. It is a strong motif that is never referenced in dialogue, and yet one which Altman deftly draws through her matching twin beds, furniture, clothing, and even her car. When Pinky starts taking some of these for herself and shrouding herself in Millie’s favourite colour, the purpose of his sunshine-hued production design grows even more apparent.

Millie surrounds herself in a yellow, giving bright, visual definition to her character and setting herself up in opposition to Pinky.

Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Pinky on the other hand is a blank slate of a woman, gazing at Millie with perceptive eyes and slowly picking up on her mannerisms from a distance. When she first starts working at the same health spa as Millie she lets on little about her past, and even when they eventually become roommates, she still feels strangely detached. Everything we learn about her comes through those small, bizarre mannerisms which Altman subtly lingers on, such as the way she stalks and imitates a pair of twins passing by. When she expresses her desire to be one, it is brushed off by others as a mere quirk, but in the accumulation of these formal character details we recognise how integral these copycat eccentricities quirks are to her being.

“Do you think they know which one they are?”

“Maybe they switch back and forth. And one day Peggy’s Polly. Another day, Polly’s Peggy.”

On top of all of Pinky’s other quirks, she also has an obsession with twins, expressing a strong desire to be one.
Altman keeps drawing parallels between Millie and Pinky on almost every level – and quite significantly in his staging.

It doesn’t take a lot of conjecturing then to realise why Altman lays out so many mirrors across his mise-en-scene, creating doubles of his actors who interact within some creatively blocked compositions. It is almost as if this is how Pinky sees the world, watching it through reflections and wishing to become “real” herself. The roving camera zooms and overlapping dialogue that Altman is so frequently associated with brilliantly matches her shrewd perspective as well, picking out random lines of trivial conversation and specific individuals within busy settings that she attentively fixates on. Accompanying these odd observations is Gerald Busby’s horror-tinted score of droning flutes and atonal horns, as nervously erratic in its movements and dynamics as Spacek herself.

Clearly one of Altman’s strongest efforts in mise-en-scène, using mirrors and reflections to create doubles of his characters, and tying it all formally to the central conflict.

On the other side of Pinky’s incredible obsession is a past which she has an equally intense aversion to. When her mother and father enter the film, it is easy to see why those instincts are so strong. As warm and cordial as they initially appear, their odd behaviour implies a childhood for Pinky that was marked by a lack of boundaries, especially when they disturbingly make love in her bed. Quite notably, they are also unusually old to be this young woman’s biological parents, and she even outright denies knowing them. Most telling of all is her adoption of a new identity in the moniker Pinky, shunning her birth name Mildred – though given that she shares this name with Millie, it doesn’t take long for her to start using it again.

Which brings us back to that woman who has been a consistent present in the background of this psychodrama, painting those horrific frescoes. Willie is the pregnant wife of Edgar, the ageing Hollywood stunt double who owns the apartment block much of the film is set in, and the love interest of both Millie and Pinky at different points. By taking the position of Willie in that relationship, Millie is effectively stealing another’s identity for herself, while Pinky is merely just copying her idolised roommate.

Willie lurks on the edges of this story for a long time, but she is one of its most essential characters, painting the symbolic frescoes and eventually filling in the part of the title’s third woman.

The realisation that Edgar is a pitiful, deadbeat husband who has left his wife to give birth alone marks a shift in this dynamic. While Millie rushes to Willie’s aid and delivers her baby, Pinky watches from a distance like a clueless child, and taking her point of view, Altman’s camera dreamily drifts in and out of focus. Edgar’s subsequent disappearance may be a mystery to the police, but it is plain enough in the conclusion’s subtext to surmise what has unfolded.

The birth of Willie’s baby is disorientating to watch, gradually fading into unfocused photography.

Between these three women, new bonds have formed over mutual disenchantment – almost like a family that has found stability in its distinct roles. In Willie’s incapacitation, she becomes a surrogate grandmother figure, passing on her wide-brimmed hats, flowing dresses, and managerial job at that local tavern to a more maternal Millie who has shed her stylish yellow clothing. Meanwhile, Pinky finds comfort in her new status as the daughter she could never be to her biological parents, playfully scorned by her mother and cherished by her grandma.

Much like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Altman finds great tension in the enigmatic blending of identities, considering each side as conflicting parts of a whole. In the tiny yet complex ensemble of 3 Women though, Altman narrows his focus down to an intricate family portrait of ageing women, recognising when the time has come to let younger generations usurp one’s position, and consequently doing the same to one’s own elders. Only in these clearly defined roles and compassionate female relationships can any sort of harmony be found within the chaos of a worldly, modern society.

Resolution is found in the new identities each woman claims, distinct from the others – there is peace in tradition and clearly-defined roles for these women.

3 Women is currently available to buy on YouTube.


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