The story goes that the concept for 1977’s 3 Women appeared to director Robert Altman in its entirety within a dream. And the ethereal finished film with its trippy plot (complete with an ending that is entirely up to interpretation) and dreamscape visuals (the creepy murals that cover the bottoms of pools and walls are not soon forgotten) seem to evoke the cerebral source. To be honest, the film is pretty bizarre. Even when the plot doesn’t entirely make sense, the tone and mood of the film are enough to sustain interest. You just have to let the whole experience wash over you and give yourself over to the head-trip. It really found a way to wriggle into my brain. Days later I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. Luckily, the weekly film collective known as Hit Me WithYour Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience is examining Altman’s 3 Women. Perhaps analyzing the film’s visual aesthetics will bring more clarity. At the very least, it’s a chance to share our thoughts about the film, which begs for discussion.
Shelley Duvall (in a role that won her a Best Actress award at Cannes), Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule play the trio of women in question, Millie, Willie, and Pinky (which makes them sound like a Three Stooges-like comedic group or the long-lost nephews of Donald Duck). Pinky (Spacek), socially inept and perhaps a little mentally handicapped, takes a job at a spa for senior citizens and quickly becomes infatuated with her co-worker, Millie (Duvall). It seems that Pinky may actually be the only person to show interest in her at all as the talkative Millie is virtually ignored by everyone else around her. Millie is also delusional about her own sway over men and place among her peers. She is constantly on the hunt for men that seem repulsed by her (in a cringe-worthy scene, the men she has lunch with literally talk right through her) or endlessly throwing dinner parties for non-existent company. The women become roommates (AWKWARD) and become entangled in the life of their landlord and his pregnant artist wife, Willie (Rule).
Like most Altman films, the plot is mercurial and doesn’t exist in a traditional storytelling setting. It’s merely a device to frame fascinating character studies and dreamlike symbolism. Which leads me to my choice for Best Shot from the film. It combines some of the film’s themes and imagery into a single shot.
Water is used throughout the film to mirror the fluidity of dreams and shifting nature of the film’s characters. A reoccurring effect is a wave that makes the screen appear as if it is half submerged in water, mimicking the way our mind feels as we sleep. A lot of the film’s action even takes place in and around swimming pools as both the women’s home and job prominently feature the body of water. The still waters of the pool also reflect back images but fractured and distorted. With that in mind, a pool happens to be the setting for my chosen shot.
Pinky seems almost as obsessed with a pair of twins that also work at the spa as she is with Millie. The twins, who walk in unison and dress identically, seem to be collectively one person split into two. Neither is given an individual personality and they float about as a pair throughout the film as creepily as those cinematic twins in another Shelley Duvall classic. At one point in the film, Pinky wonders aloud if the twins even know which one is which. As the film progresses, Pinky and Millie’s power dynamic switch and the two women start to meld together to form aspects of the same person. We even learn that Pinky’s real name is actually Mildred and that in a bit of identity theft, she used Millie’s Social Security Number for her spa paperwork.
The duplicity yet singularity of the twin’s presence in the water is like an omen of what is later to befall the women. The camera zooms in on them eerily gazing at Millie and Pinky from the pool, unsettling us as viewers and foreshadowing the women’s own unification. The film may have been a creation of the stuff that dreams are made of, but the harmless seeming shot is almost nightmarish.