Deliberately opaque and sluggishly paced, 3 Women represents maverick auteur Robert Altman’s filmmaking at its least accessible. With its clinical depiction of weird behavior and its cringe-inducing storyline about an odd young woman coveting the existence of a fellow misfit, 3 Women is a cinematic cousin to Ingmar Bergman’s personality-transfer psychodrama Persona (1966). The difference, of course, is that Persona makes sense. Written, produced, and directed by Altman, 3 Women a thriller with heavily surrealistic elements, so the actual narrative matters less than the sick stuff crawling beneath the surface. Further, Altman has said that the film came to him as a dream, and these roots are evident in the way Altman strings together bizarre signifiers—the movie’s random components include a speechless woman who paints epic murals on the base of a swimming pool, a middle-aged dude whose claim to fame is having been the stunt double for TV cowboy Hugh O’Brien, and a pair of bitchy twins.
Set in a dusty town in rural California, the picture begins when spooky-eyed young waif Pinky (Sissy Spacek) shows up for her first day of work at an aquatic rehab center for seniors. (Cue grotesque shots of aging thighs descending into water.) Assigned to mentor Pinky is gangly chatterbox Millie (Shelley Duvall), who inexplicably believes herself irresistible to friends and suitors alike, even though she’s constantly mocked and rebuffed. Pinky gravitates to Millie, and the two become roommates. (Cue weird sequence of touring a semi-abandoned Old West theme park near Millie’s apartment building.) As the story drags on—and on and on—Pinky covertly studies her roommate and does little things to screw with Millie’s existence, until finally the women arrive at some strange new level of understanding.
As for what exactly that new level of understanding comprises, your guess is as good as mine; even Altman has admitted he doesn’t know what the picture’s ending means.
3 Women is filled with ominous textures, such as guttural music cues and, at one point, an extended, impressionistic montage of murder scenes and trippy artwork. There’s also a recurring motif of vignettes seen through a veil of water, as if the story’s events occur at some unknowable depth of consciousness. 3 Women is catnip for viewers who crave ferociously individualistic cinema, because there’s no mistaking this ethereal symphony for an ordinary movie. And, indeed, the picture has many respectable admirers: Roger Ebert is a fan, and after a long period in which the film was commercially unavailable, it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.
That said, is the movie actually worth watching for mere mortals? Depends on what rocks your world. I found 3 Women pointless and tedious, little more than self-indulgent regurgitation of personal dream imagery. Yet I admit that I rarely enjoy movies lacking grounded narratives, and that I have mixed feelings about Altman’s tendency to pick the scabs of human strangeness. However, the strength of a movie like 3 Women is that it’s a different experience for every viewer—where I saw only ugliness, you may find beauty.
3 Women: FREAKY