Robert Altman followed Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians with 3 Women, one of the most beautiful and enigmatic films in his entire body of work. Taken collectively, these three films probably represent the high point of Altman’s career, the period that distilled all the stylistic innovation he had been building over the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Altman had collaborated on several screenplays before this point, 3 Women was the first film in his career that he had written alone, with the exception of The Delinquents, his first feature, which was released in 1957. Accordingly, Altman wrote himself a screenplay that would allow him to take his unique aesthetic to its logical conclusion – a screenplay that thematises his approach to cinema as much as it demonstrates it – revolving around a collection of characters who are themselves caught between scripting and directing their own lives. For that reason, 3 Women is the apotheosis of several tendencies in Altman’s filmography over the 1970s – his fascination with ensemble dramas, his interest in country and western aesthetics, his concern over the fate of the counterculture, and his vision of a cinema driven by collective propulsion, rather than by story or character in a regular sense.
All of those tendencies culminate in the opening scenes of 3 Women, which place us in the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, a spa situated in a California desert town. Through a series of stately tracking-shots, subliminal zoom-and-pans, and overlapping sonic planes, Altman immerses us in the ebb and flow of bodies in this liquid, mercurial space, which is driven by the quotidian hum and murmur of its patients. Opting for a series of elaborate compositions involving mirrors, doubles and multiple spatial frames, Altman deflects our attention from any one character, space or situation, instead identifying his film with the continuous, collective momentum of the spa, and the ways in which bodies continually rub up against and displace one another. While there may be a far more abrasive score than in many of Altman’s earlier films, it’s offset by the pastel palette, which is anchored in the fabrics and fixtures of the spa, lending colour itself, and the colour scheme of the film, an intensive tactile and textural proximity. Generating his tableaux primarily from yellow and mauve, Altman creates a cinematic experience that subsists more on the ebb and flow of images, and continuous displacement of images by other images, rather than upon any kind of teleology, narrative, linear development or logical progression.
This tactile communion of bodies gradually shapes itself around two figures – Millie Lammoreaux, an employee played by Shelley Duvall, and Pinky Rose, a newcomer played by Sissy Spacek, although both of these characters have a very different relationship to the spa as a whole. Since Millie has worked at the spa for some time, she is well attuned to its different rhythms and registers, moving so fluidly through its rooms and spaces that nobody even seems to notice that she is there. By contrast, Pinky disrupts the ebb and flow from the very beginning, whether by blowing bubbles in her lunch drink, going underwater too suddenly and deeply, pouring salt in her beer so that it overflows, or drinking so quickly that she burps. Rather than permitting herself to be massaged into the collective flow of the spa, Pinky stands out, like a rock in a stream, and quickly becomes fascinated with Millie. Since she has spent so much time at the spa, Millie has become almost invisible to the outside world, continually talking to people who aren’t interested in her, but she’s not all that interested in Pinky in the early stages of the film, creating a displaced space of desire between the two women that draws them together in various elliptical and evocative ways.
While these connections take various forms, they all stem from the way in which the two women depart from their expectations of the spa. Since Pinky doesn’t really fit in at the spa, she becomes the one person in the film who is really capable of hearing Millie. However, Pinky is fascinated with Millie precisely because she has managed to subsume herself into the rhythms of the spa, identifying herself so thoroughly with its decorous tactility that her femininity seems to belong to another time. Despite Millie’s efforts to connect with the hippies who live in her motel, most members of the counterculture are pretty snide about her, even though she is roughly the same age as them: “Uh-oh, don’t look now, but it’s Thoroughly Modern Millie – top of the stairs, making her appearance.” While Pinky is unable to properly perform femininity, Millie is too performative, but both women are obsessed with the idea of femininity as performance, and the ways that performance might be undone or rewired. For Pinky, this takes the form of endlessly copying Millie, while Millie becomes more and more dependent on Pinky as her audience, converging both women on a mimetic femininity that sees them morph in and out of each other with increasing fluidity.
On the surface, this focus on two characters makes 3 Women quite different from the ensemble visions of Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Yet this mimetic femininity is simultaneously inflected through all the characters and spaces in the film, as the collective propulsion that drove Altman’s earlier works is now reframed as a way of regulating and controlling feminine behavior. The collective and countercultural mentality that formed the subject of Altman’s earlier films is, here, inextricable from the ways in which feminine attachment is policed, meaning that the diffuse space between Millie and Pinky also plays as a critique of the counterculture, and its collective aspirations. No doubt, in Altman’s earlier films, women were integral to the development of this collective vision, but they were rarely permitted to participate in it. Instead, the collective propulsion that drove Altman’s films tended to be gendered as masculine, and to depend on the sacrifice of female figures.
By contrast, 3 Women pivots Millie and Pinky between generating this collective space, and experiencing it. While Millie and Pinky are both in the film, they are also, in some sense, outside it, crafting the film, and its world, around them as they go, with the result that the film often seems to be improvising as it proceeds, or to be operating semi-autonomously, not unlike the dream of Altman’s that inspired it. This diffuse space between generating and experiencing this collective and countercultural mentality is most pronounced at Dodge City, a bar that has been built on an old western-styled theme park, replete with a shooting range out the back and a golf course nicknamed the Santa Fe Trail. Dodge City is Millie’s favourite hangout, since her old-fashioned form of femininity feels modern by comparison to the old fixtures, even if the people working there seem as disinterested in her as her neighbours and workmates. Yet Dodge City is also where Millie is most risqué, and where she feels most comfortable picking up men, since she has an ongoing relationship, and understanding, with the owner, Edgar Hart, played by Robert Fortier, a stunt double who specialized in westerns.
In Dodge City, Millie feels more traditional, but also more countercultural, than any of the other women in the film, settling into the imagery of the west, but also appreciating that imagery as a camp effect, and as an exercise in pastiche. In Altman’s earlier films, the western mindset, and the ideal of the frontier, is used as a way of contouring his collective vision, but here the west is displaced by its own pastiche, displacing the way in which Altman’s earlier films compartmentalized and circumscribed feminine identity as well. Without the west, and the images of horizon and frontier to contain it, Altman’s collective propulsion is almost entirely abstracted in and through Dodge City, dissolving narrative, character and motivation into a mesmerizing fever-dream that proceeds by association, suggestion and innuendo. Once we have arrived at Dodge City, 3 Women plays as an ebb and flow of images that suggest a collective understanding that includes Millie and Pinky, but that is also too dependent upon them to entirely individuate them either. In these moments, 3 Women often recalls Images, which was Altman’s most abstract film before this point, as well as his only film of the 70s with a female protagonist. In both of these films, the continuous displacement and redirection of images is the main subject matter, even as this slippage and deferral prevents the film settling on any discernible or discrete point of focus.
This ebb and flow is contoured around the third woman in 3 Women – Willie Hart, played by Janice Rule, the wife of Edgar Hart. Unlike Millie and Pinky, we learn very little about Willie, who has relatively little screen time as a whole. Instead, we experience her mainly through her murals, which are dotted all over Dodge City, but most powerful when they converge on the bottom of the empty swimming pool, where she is composing her largest work when we first meet her. The opening credits of 3 Women also pan over this mural, which features a series of primitivistic images of men and women in various states of attraction and intercourse. Situated at the bottom of the pool, these crude gender relations are designed to be seen through water, which will offset their harsh lines, but also invite swimmers to dive into the pool, and to immerse themselves in the masculine and feminine roles that the images signify. As a result, the mural stands in relation to the pool in the same way that Altman’s depiction of gender stands in relation to the fluid collectivity he erects on top of it, since in both cases a watery seduction belies the brutality and cruelty of the gender roles that lies just beneath it, waiting patiently for the oblivious swimmer to stumble into them.
Caught between generating and experiencing the watery fluidity of Altman’s earlier visions, Millie and Pinky are both figure and ground of these pools and spas, both the murals on the bottom and the water flowing over the top. However, these two spaces are only articulated as discrete in the first place by Willie, meaning that she is less a character than a structural principle of Altman’s cinematic universe. By never interpreting her paintings, or providing her with a character, or dissecting her motivations, Altman therefore keeps this relation between collectivity and regulated femininity open as a question within 3 Women – a question that Pinky asks even more emphatically when she jumps from the second storey of Millie’s motel into the motel pool, hitting the water from such a height that she makes damaging contact with the bottom. With the figure and ground of the pool, and the film, traversed so dramatically, the remainder of 3 Women feels like a standing wave – always moving, but always in the same place – as the collective propulsion of Altman’s earlier films is almost entirely abstracted into a series of correspondances and connections whose significance is perpetually displaced, and whose true nature is never completely articulated.
As one image is displaced by the next, the film grows more and more slippery, until it starts to glimpse feminine desire as an inherently collective and communal experience – so collective and communal, in fact, that it needs to be subordinated and sacrificed to the more masculine collectivism of Altman’s earlier features. Without that sacrifice occurring here, however, the different women all blend and ebb into one another, as do the motifs of the film, which are gradually unmoored from any single “meaning” and instead subsumed into a significatory play that defies being captured or contained by any one individual, Altman least of all. By the time the women come together for a cryptic closing sequence in Dodge City, they seem to have encompassed every possible role in the film, but still not returned to their original selves, resulting in one of the most dreamiest of all of Altman’s works, and the most rarefied of all the ensemble films that he made throughout the 1970s.