3 Women, written and directed by Robert Altman, is a drama about the obsessions and personalities that make up the human psyche, and how it can shift and change at a moment’s notice and become something else entirely. The story is told through the portrait of three women, two in particular, their relationship spiraling into questions of identity and individuality.

Mildred “Pinky” Rose (Sissy Spacek) is a new hire at the elderly health spa and takes a shining to her trainer, Millie (Shelley Duvall). Soon enough, they end up moving in together, sharing time at the nearby tavern run by Willie (Janice Rule) and her husband Edgar (Robert Fortier). As a setup, this all sounds quite tame, of course. But it is about the execution where the film takes its lead and runs with it.

Pinky’s actions throughout the first half, and in effect Spacek’s performance, are those of awe and adulation. Her childish antics are well-defined in blowing bubbles into her drink at the cafe, intently watching the older people in the room and playing around with a wheelchair when no one is looking. But it is in her infatuation and fascination with Millie that the film really takes a turn. The suddenness of the character shift that occurs later on is something that Spacek handles with ease, becoming something else entirely and making that shift believable. It’s an impressive feat, one made up of both emotional and physical transformation and showcasing Spacek’s talent in spectacular fashion.

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Spacek and Duvall, 3 Women

Duvall’s Millie is almost like a ghost, seen but rarely heard, speaking of the trends she’s into or interested in or of the many dates she goes on, but it goes through one ear and out the other. Those in her vicinity do not even pander to her, simply ignoring her the best they can. Despite that, she continues, spinning tales in the hopes one day they will show more attention. Her dates are never seen, their existence left in question. When she goes to the hospital cafeteria across from work and talks to the men, they never in any form respond to her.

Rule as Willie is mostly silent throughout the run of the movie, a mainstay presence but somewhat in the background as she runs the Dodge City tavern with her husband Edgar (they also happen to own the apartment building that Millie and Pinky share). She is focused on her painting, creating murals of great creations, exaggerated women clutching at each other who look more creature than human and a lone man who stands before them (three women and a man… allusion!).

The influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona can be felt considerably throughout the film, mainly in the form of identity. What belongs to one person, and what belongs to two when the most intimate or personal are shared? Lines blur, and where one begins and the other ends becomes a fascinating lens through which the drama unfolds.

This theme of malleability in the film, accompanied by many shots of water and the shapes that are beyond it, lends to the question of whether we are really what we are, but what we intend to be. There are moments captured through the fish tank, showing Millie and Pinky through that barrier, as though they are shifting and changing before our very eyes. The malleable nature is transposed over the proceedings in the second half of the movie, after the cataclysmic event that changes the trajectories of its two leads. At first it comes in the form of Pinky punching a second hole in Millie’s punch card. Then it’s her social security number being used, and her diary being written in. There’s a point of not quite identity theft, but identity insurrection, where Pinky’s real name, Mildred, and Millie’s full name, Mildred, are one and the same. They are intertwined by name, location, and vocation, and in the film’s climax, as things begin to shift again, they even share the same bed.

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Spacek and Duvall, 3 Women

The film shows its hand with a car ride near the middle of the film, where Pinky talks about the twins at work. She wonders aloud if they sometimes change places, and whether anyone would ever notice. It is a good moment of showing both characters’ views on the matter before the events click into place. One takes the side of it being fun, while the other does not see it as practical. Of course they would know which one is which, Millie says without giving it too much thought. If only she knew what she was in for.

There is a dream-like quality to the filmmaking itself, an air of floatiness to the way the camera captures the story and performances. The camera trails about as though it is not always going to capture the attention of the scene, the thing playing out that is integral to the moment, but rather something else equally as noteworthy to witness. The desert that most of the film takes place in is barren and unforgiving in its presentation, suggesting only the characters and the buildings exist and nothing else.

There is a gorgeously layered dream sequence in the third act woven into itself, a constant fading foreground and background shifting and giving way to meaning after meaning. It shows that everything has a purpose, nothing happens by accident, and that it weighs heavily on Pinky’s mind as the demons of her actions play out in her mind.

The film’s final scene is yet another shift, and how one character refers to another adds to the idea that the shifting will possibly continue, or has reverted. But still the paintings remain the same, perhaps the only thing that will always remain the same.

Altman has created a number of classics over his career, this being among them. 3 Women is a wonderfully made movie that uses its cast remarkably well, focusing on the details and touching on ideas not many other films have tackled with such creativity and uniqueness. It demands your time, and patience, and it will reward you.

★★★

Written by Kevin Lever

TV Critic for FilmEra. Extremely Canadian.

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