I felt both sweaty and annoyed to discover not too long ago that two of my favorite female champions of horror Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall had collaborated on any single film. The union of Duvall’s cartoonish proportions and Spacek’s unnerving ginger stare is maybe the most aesthetically pleasing casting move I’ve witnessed since…I don’t know, Natasha Lyonne in Slums of Beverly Hills? I had no uncertain expectations, even without knowing anything of Robert Altman or his films.
Visually, 3 Women is oddly aquatic as it is deserted. To wit, it opens with a scene of lanky despondent women strolling like stiff dolls in a steaming bath filled with the pale, flabby, and infirm. Literally one of the posters for this film is of Duvall cradling Spacek in the bottom of an empty pool, like a ruined infant in her skeleton arms. Yet the film is set in an actual desert.
Duvall (Millie) is like Schiele’s wet dream meets candy striper in this film. Her voice is like a muffled radio advertisement from the ‘50s that never shuts off. Her life is cute, orderly, and profoundly empty. People ignore her, blatantly, in protest of her unreasonably optimistic being. When she arrives, Specek (Pinky) provides the totally incongruent ying to Millie’s yang. She clings to Millie sweetly like a starved cub to a tit.
On her own, Pinky meanders through daily life with the common sense and social graces of a girl who’s been raised by wolves. Together the pair forms a diptych: two opposing shades of ignorance, neither of which is entirely complete. The effect is a general feeling of something completely unwholesome, maybe sinister.
As a bizarre and perhaps meaningless twist, the third woman in this film is almost mute and nearly invisible as a character. She lives like an orphaned childbearing savant in the ruins of a nice-enough place, now a failed commune for drunk hicks with guns. We see her leering and drawing in the bottoms of pools her own childish nightmare revelations.
It’s been said the film is based on a series of dreams the director Altman had while his wife was in the hospital, which explains a lot of what I was getting at regarding the generally opposing forces in this film: Overall, they induce a kind of in-between state where things are neither wrong nor innocent, neither wholly real nor unreal. Between the dusty backdrop and the robotic, yet unpredictable behaviors of the characters, this movie seems to take place on the dark side of the moon. It leaves one with the feeling of shallow distrust. The sudden transformation Pinky undergoes, for example, halfway through the film feels, in retrospect, like the paranoid apprehensions of a sleeping conscious.
Thus, perhaps, this film does not need to make excuses for itself; nor I for it. I love dreams. I love Duvall in her grey bathing suit. I love all the weird folk art in pools, though I was not thorough enough to discover the name or names of the artist or artists responsible. I love that the third woman seems to have been almost completely written out of the film immediately after Altman chose the title. I don’t care that there’s not much sympathy in here for women. I’m not sure sympathy is what we need.
There is a plot, but like a dream’s, it’s hardly worth recalling. In the end the women are seen as trapped, alone together with their varying sorts of evils and illnesses, quarantined from the functioning world. The film satisfies a lust for the unhinged woman: another manifestation of the subconscious. This lust is also manifest in the main male character in the film, whom Millie takes home. “What do you know,” she says defiantly. There is some power in this: in a woman who refuses to be judged.
The film is most tragic for Millie, even though her character is almost unbearable. Her bouts of sincerity triumph, in the end, over her desperate, simple-minded need for attention—especially male attention. The irony is that her final role, her punishment, is to become the provider, the caretaker, of women.
Laura Theobald writes mostly poetry. You can find a list of her online works at lauratheobald.tumblr.com.