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3 Women: Altman’s Dreamscape of Identity

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Dreams and art share a long history, and many works of art – from painting, to literature, theatre and music, even architecture – have been inspired by artists’ dreams. Even so, until cinema, there was no other medium that was not only capable of accommodating the dreamlike, but also resembled it in form. Both film and dreams operate through a visual sign-language, images move and dissolve, landscapes and human shapes change, and our actions can do little to control them. When I share my dreams with somebody, the way they understand them is inevitably different from the way I do: although we share concepts of signs, the meanings of those signs vary, as they are shaped by each person’s own unique experiences. In the same way, the images a director puts into his/her movie most likely have a different significance for him/or her than they do for me as a spectator.

Even more so, each individual spectator brings their own experiences and range of meanings into the theatre, and perceives the images on screen  according to what they already know from the off-screen space. If this did not exist, being a spectator would not be the active, enriching, and often cathartic experience that it is now, and we probably would not have any interest in cinema. Acknowledging our own agency in movie-going is important, but it is even necessary in the case of those films that we simply cannot put our minds to.

I have tried to rationalise Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), to follow its treads, persisting on the “but what does it mean?” question that would shadow my own experience until I realised that I can never understand this film, that maybe no one can. What I can do instead, is enter it.  Go into its world and experience it as an invitation to a dream, take from it whatever I already carry within.

3 Women came to Altman mostly in the form of a dream that the director felt possessed the qualities and shape of a film. He even pitched the idea successfully to Lion’s Gate Films (a production company he had collaborated with in the past) before the film was scripted. 3 Women first premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 1977, but had little commercial success, and it only received a home distribution in 2004, when The Criterion Collection released it on DVD. Yet, it is one of Altman’s most captivating  pictures whose images, just as a dream, return to haunt us, each time adding layers to our initial reading.

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Set somewhere in the Californian desert, 3 Womenfirst introduces us to Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) who meet at the senior care centre where they both work. It’s Pinky’s first day there and Millie is supposed to train her. Soon, we see the two women are complete binaries. One of the best workers in the centre, Millie’s each movement and gesture seem calculated and, to an extent, restricted. Each time she encounters a mirror, she makes sure her hair is in place, her clothes presentable.

Millie is the kind of person, we learn early on, who has a recipe book with meals arranged in order of preparation time. We hear her speak a lot about food in the film and she takes pride of her famous dinner parties, but the social situations we see her in drastically differ from the ones she talks about. Dressed in brightly coloured clothes, predominantly yellow, she desperately tries to draw the attention of her coworkers and neighbours who ruthlessly ignore her presence, making her character feel invisible. There is one person whose attention Millie manages to capture effortlessly,  without wanting to, and this is Pinky.

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“Pinky has little to her name,” writes Millie in her diary and, up to a certain point of the film, this statement seems fair. Always dressed in pink, tender, girly and childish, Pinky completely corresponds to the characteristics of her nickname. Child-like, she has little respect or understanding for rules of society, which makes her in a way also disintegrated from it. Pinky dives into the pool where she takes care of the elderly, makes bubbles with her coke, and her main driving force seems to be her curiosity. She is captivated not only by Millie, but also by the uncanny presence of the two twins working at the care centre.

The twins, played by Leslie and Patricia Ann Hudson, become a recurring symbol of the film. Altman did not intend to have them in the film initially, but stumbled upon them during shooting, and decided to integrate them as symbols into the story. The strangeness of the twin phenomenon seems to bother only Pinky, who brings it up later in a conversation she has with Millie: “I wonder what it’s like to be twins. Do you think they know which one they are?”

On first sight, Pinky and Millie seem to share nothing in common. Just as the colours they wear, Pinkie and Millie bear opposite characteristics. Pink is girly, soft, and subtle, while yellow is lively, but also overwhelming, attracting immediate attention.  By the end of first act, we learn they are both from Texas and that Pinky’s real name is also Mildred – a fact that seems to irritate Millie. Soon Pinky moves in to Millie’s house as her roommate.

Janice Rule as Willie Hart

There, we are introduced to the third woman in the film – Willie, played by janice Rule. Willie is pregnant and married to a man called Edgar (Robert Fortier), whose interests seem limited to beer, cars, guns, and women, and whose proudest achievement is that once he was a Hollywood stunt double (or so he says).  The two rarely share screen space, and Willie remains mostly silent throughout, preoccupied with painting bizzare murals on the bottom of the empty pool at the building complex where they all live. Having completely abandoned society, Willie is the most enigmatic character in the film, resembling a god-like figure rather than a person. Dressed in loose, earthly brown clothes that almost make her disappear and silently carrying life inside of her, she is the ultimate female beginning, a personification of Gaea.

As they blend their lives together, Millie and Pinkie’s  personalities also begin to gradually merge. Pinky begins wearing Millie’s clothes and reading her diary until an  accident occurs and she wakes up as a completely different person, rejecting her childish nickname and insisting that her real name is Mildred. Ultimately, there is a traumatic dark element in the film, one that occurs shockingly, yet inevitably. Shifting as mysteriously as dream episodes, the 3 Women climaxes sharply, then falls into a deep serenity – a mysterious silence of a new order, a world of three women, coexisting, with no clear boundaries where one ends and the other begins.

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