3 Women / Directed by Robert Altman
Psychiatrists Glen O. Gabbard and Krin Gabbard believe 3 Women is the dream of one woman externalized as three characters; film scholar Frank Caso sees it as an exploration of personality disorder and schizophrenia; Altman himself gives a characteristically opaque offering, it is about “empty vessels in an empty landscape.” Though interpretations of the film are as varied as the director’s filmography itself, I believe that 3 Women is a lush and complex poem about a single subject: the strength it takes to reject the housewife-or-die narrative in order to form a modern feminine identity.
3 Women follows Shelley Duvall’s Millie and Sissy Spacek’s Pinky, two women, as they search for identity in the California desert. Our third woman lives on the periphery, painting murals of primal serpentine men in the midst of erotically violent acts. Her murals are painted on the bottom of two independently-owned local pools near Millie’s home, slowly drowning. Ever the jester, Altman has named her Willie, and we suggestively pan to one of her grotesque characters when her husband Edgar is caught on the way back from a rendezvous, or when he harasses Millie and Pinky to the point of serious crisis.
Willie offers up a ghostly presence throughout the film, but we know from the title card that we are meant to pay serious attention to her. There are demands placed on the viewer, as it is our conscious responsibility to piece together exactly why Willie does little more than listening, watching, and creating these days. As the film progresses, Millie and Pinky slowly creep towards similar isolations.
The Desert Hot Springs wides we see are as open as the awkward silences Millie fills at work with monologues (largely improvised by Duvall) about dating and fashion. There is little of Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue here, as much of the talking Millie does is to herself. The (male) doctor at the local Rehabilitation & Geriatrics center has treated Millie’s supervisor (female) like garbage and that has trickled down professionally and personally, branding Millie with an English Mustard letter that ensures none of her coworkers gift her with any socialization. This amplifies her disposition. A group of men at the Purple Sage Apartment where Millie and Pinky live have conditioned their one female friend into spitting vicious mockery (“There’s Thoroughly Modern Millie!”) at Millie whenever she exits her home to sit by the pool. Millie is constantly lying about going on dates (this gives her as much satisfaction as actually going on one) and kicks Pinky out of the house when a group of friends including two blind dates for the duo decide not to come over. What Millie feels is not lust, but a societally imposed benchmark that shakes her brain every time she feels she can’t reach it.
The film’s conclusion has been debated for decades, but I believe it to be quite clear: as the murals on the bottom of the pool have been constantly drowning, Willie gives birth to a baby that is deprived of oxygen. This baby, like the mythic figures she paints, was a boy, and it is his tragic death that gives Millie her individual permission to live free from the expectations and bullying that plagued much of her adult life. As soon as Millie pronounces the boy dead, she grows into the role of not a mother but a leader of the household, spending her days operating the bar Edgar used to run, Dodge City, while Pinky and Willie are secluded in a cottage out back. Though ignored for so long, the men and women at the Geriatrics facility and Purple Sage are surely talking about Millie Lammoreaux now, but she is certainly not listening.