Three Women * Robert Altman * 1977
Continuing with the string of Robert Altman films I’ve been watching lately (and I plan to watch more in the coming weeks—how did I manage to miss out on all of these for so long?) is Three Women, which evokes a distinctly different mood from others I’ve seen. There is a weird, unsettling feeling beneath the surface that reminds me of David Lynch’s later films (more specifically, Mulholland Drive).
The film opens with a dreamy, hazy montage of strange paintings and old people languidly moving their wrinkled legs through a swimming pool, to a soundtrack made up of some kind of primitive wind instrument. The pool turns out to be part of the nursing home where Millie Lamoreaux (Shelley Duvall) works, along with new hire Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek).
From the start, it’s apparent that there’s something odd about Pinky, as if she were an alien who doesn't know how humans are supposed to act. She blows bubbles in her soda and awkwardly wheels herself around in a wheelchair. Upon meeting Millie, she is instantly smitten, and seems to decide right then that she's going to not only model her behavior on her co-worker but, essentially, to become her. (That day she punches out with Millie’s time card.) In the coming days she carefully observes her object of interest, picking up her lingo (“I’m going to the little girls’ room”), her likes and dislikes (“I hate tomatoes! Yuck!”*). Later on, Millie comes home to find Pinky, who has by now become her roommate, wearing her bathrobe and reading her diary—whether Pinky’s studying or playing dress-up isn’t clear.
Millie, meanwhile, is far from the type of person one would want to emulate. She prattles on about tuna casseroles and her file of recipes she sorts by the amount of time it takes to make them, but no one pays attention; in one scene, her co-workers walk away, talking amongst themselves, as she shouts after her disinterested audience about how Macy's is offering hula lessons, and she’s going to try it. When she gets in her car and closes the door, part of her large flowing skirt sticks out of the bottom—apparently this was unintentional, but Altman saw how perfectly it summed up Millie’s character, and insisted that they kept the shot.
Millie's apartment is part of a large complex next-door to a shooting range and a Wild West-themed bar. Willie, the pregnant co-owner of this strange theme park-ish compound, silently moves around the grounds, painting iconic-looking figures in the bottom and sides of the pool. When Pinky tells her she likes her paintings she says nothing and walks away. This is troublesome for Millie ("Why'd you go and do that? That's embarrassing!")—throughout the film she displays strong concern for always projecting "normal" behavior (she later screams at Pinky, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t do anything you’re supposed to do!”), although she comes across as odd in her own way.
Millie often strikes me as delusional; she has an idealized picture in her head of what her life is like, and despite some obvious clues that this is an inaccurate picture, she clings to the imagined version. For instance, Tom, one of her neighbors, is clearly brushing her off, but she says she thinks he'd like to go out with her. While she’s out shopping for one of her “famous” dinner parties, her old roommate stops by and tells Pinky she’d been planning on stopping by for drinks “or something” but has decided to go to Dodge City instead—Millie doesn’t believe Pinky and insists that she must have scared them off. It’s downright pathetic how hard she tries to please, yet everyone still hates her. (When she arrives at the community pool, one of her neighbors whispers, "Uh oh. Don't look now, but it's thoroughly modern Millie.")
The turning point of the film occurs when, after Millie has berated her for various undeserved reasons, Pinky heads to the diving board, trancelike, and lands in the pool, where she floats lifelessly until Willie and several other neighbors jump in after her. This part is somewhat vague: has she hit her head? Can she not swim? Or is the cause entirely more complex?
Like Pinky, her parents, whom Millie has flown in to visit their daughter in the hospital, seem rather odd; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is definitely something amiss. For one, they look too old to be her parents (though we do find out that they still have sex, despite their aged appearances), and her father can’t seem to stay awake for more than a minute at a time. Neither of them appears to understand the fact that Pinky is in a coma, the father constantly asking why she doesn’t wake up, while the mother makes comments like, “Oh, we don’t want to wake her.”
When Pinky does finally come out of her coma to see them staring back at her, she acts as though she doesn't know them; when they insist that they're her parents she freaks out, shrieking that she doesn't have parents. This brings up a few questions: has she truly forgotten who she is (perhaps suffering from amnesia from a head trauma), or do the facts of her real identity coming to the surface cause her to throw a fit? (Or maybe they really aren’t her parents, though that theory seems somewhat unlikely given the rest of the story.)
Pinky undergoes a drastic transformation after leaving the hospital, wearing makeup and painting her toenails, drinking, gambling, practicing her aim on the shooting range, and generally acting like a total badass. She actually seems a little more grown up—or at least less childlike, maybe more like a troubled teenager. In one particularly bizarre scene, she starts laughing, but it sounds as though she doesn't know how to laugh and is literally saying “ha ha ha ha ha” over and over again. More and more one wonders whether she honestly believes she is Millie, as she begins to write in her diary, speculating about who her parents were (“maybe Lamoreaux is French”).
Throughout the film, there is an underlying theme of duality, of spiritual connectedness and split personality. When Willie and Millie (separately) peer into a glass window at the hospital, their faces reflect in such a way that it appears as though there are two of them, splitting off like a cell reproducing. (I only wish Altman had decided to do this just once, since it happens to both characters in exactly the same way.)
The twins, Polly and Peggy, who also work at the nursing home, are also mentioned throughout (everyone’s always talking about those twins!), though we never really get to know them—they’re shown from a distance, usually walking by in matching outfits, which enhances the strange, unsettling feeling they suggest. These themes are brought to a head in an abstract dream sequence involving water, twins, and the mirrored reflections of Willie’s and Millie's faces, permeated by a murky, blue haze (similar to the opening of the film).
What I interpreted as one of the most important scenes in the film involves Pinky asking Millie, in reference to the twins, "Do you think they know which one they are?" Millie dismisses this as a stupid question, but it seems rather significant: does Pinky know which one she is?
* In this scene she refers to butter as “that white stuff,” which perpetuates the feeling that she’s from another planet. I mean, who doesn’t know what butter is?