Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) has a job working with the elderly at a California health spa, helping them take a dip in the pool, supervising them, that sort of thing. Today there's a new arrival on the staff, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), and Millie is ordered by her boss to show Pinky the ropes, so after lunch she guides her around, telling her how to treat the patients and as she does so Pinky grows infatuated and determined to become a big part of Millie's life. The next two days Millie isn't at work because she is helping her old roommate move out, and Pinky really misses her, so when she returns it isn't long before Pinky is finding excuses to hang around with her, little knowing how close they really will get...
If you ever wondered why Robert Altman, who wrote and directed 3 Women, fell out of favour with the general movie-going public after his success in the early seventies, simply look to films like this. I'm not sure how good an idea it is for filmmakers to base their work on the dreams they've had, as you can expect logic to fly out the window at some point, but that's what Altman did here, presumably after falling asleep watching Ingmar Bergman's Persona on late night television. It's a languidly paced story, seeming to wilt under the bright sunlight and grow mysterious in the moonlight, and many have been baffled by what it presents as a resolution.
What the film does have going for it are the two excellent performances by Duvall and Spacek. Duvall plays Millie as a vapid, empty headed chatterbox, conducting one way conversations about nothing special with people who aren't listening; until Pinky enters the scene, the impression is that nobody cares about Millie at all. As for Pinky, she's mischievous but similarly shallow and oddly unformed, looking around for someone to latch onto and finding the right person in Millie. When the two get together, as instigated by Pinky when she offers to be Millie's new roommate, their personalities are distinct at first.
However, events take a turn for the worse when Millie is forced to confront her inadequacies and lashes out at Pinky. There is a third woman hovering around in the background and she is Willie Hart (Janice Rule), a largely silent, pregnant artist who paints huge, heavily symbolic murals around the bar and apartment complex where Millie lives, and it is she who finds Pinky when she takes a tumble off the balcony into the swimming pool, a possible suicide attempt. This happens following an argument with Millie, and Millie is distraught after Pinky ends up in a coma, then trying to contact the girl's parents and improbably finding them - or does she?
All the way through the film there have been images groaning with meaning, such as a pair of twins, many shots of mirrors and reflections, and the way water plays a part as Altman places a wave effect over the lower half of the screen, but when Pinky wakes up things are stranger. It's as if the bump on the head has made her personality transform into a more successful version of Millie's, as she takes her friends, writes in her diary and generally intimidates her. And there's more weirdness to come on the night that Willie has her baby, but what does that ending mean? Is it nothing more than a variation on The Wizard of Oz, an "it was a dream and you were all there" let down? Or are the characters coping by genuinely swapping identities? Perhaps they're all the one woman - perhaps they're all womankind? Whatever, 3 Women spins its web of intrigue as if it doesn't really matter if it makes sense or not, and in its way falls back on dreamlike contrivances that will either infuriate or enchant. Music by Gerald Busby.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.