Robert Altman said that his artsiest movie, 3 Women, came to him in a dream—and, well, you know how dreams are: they don’t really end, rather, are cut short when the dreamer awakens. Altman admitted he didn’t know how to end his movie. Before collapsing into silliness and esoteric symbolism, it is hypnotic, delicately colored, and surely about something.
Two of the three women—the third is a creative spirit married to a lout—work as therapists in a senior care facility. Unhappily named Mildred, one calls herself Millie (Shelley Duvall, wonderful—best actress, Cannes, Los Angeles film critics), the other, Pinky. When she moves in to Millie’s apartment in a California desert complex, innocent Pinky finds kitchen and bedroom closet, which are ordinary in size, “big”; she announces that Millie is “perfect.” Each on the sly reads the other’s diary. Somehow, both have the same Social Security number. Both come to share Edgar, the husband of the “third woman,” Willie. Millie is a lonely woman, a self-absorbed compulsive prattler who pretends she attracts dates and can cook. When Millie turns on her, Pinky attempts suicide by jumping from the upper balcony into the complex’s swimming pool; waking up from a coma, she now seems more like Millie. She doesn’t recognize her parents because they’re her parents, not Millie’s. She defines herself by becoming cold and mean.
The swimming pool reeks of the unconscious, and it is in particular female consciousness that the film endeavors to explore. In several shots, both women appear, one in reality, one reflected in a mirror. There are dream passages; but, of course, the whole thing resembles a dream—one that segues from one influence to another: Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
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