3 Women is an enigmatic jewel from that magic period of freedom for Altman. His dream infused the film not only with raw materials of cast, theme and setting, but with a strange atmosphere of aquatic veils, exaggerated colours, a weird dialogue of opacity and transparency through steam, reflections, shadows and rising heat. Yet it also delved into a small, isolated pocket of the US swathed with a loneliness and frailty amidst dusty kitsch Americana (mini-golf, shooting ranges and dirt bikes) and superficiality. It’s perplexing as all hell, and I’m not certain it ever quite reaches the full circle it strives for, but it makes as crystalline and lasting an impression as anything Altman’s ever done.
The first moments are transporting: A woman painting a mural is seen through a tumbling aquarium. And then we see an indoor pool, following elephantine legs which intermingle with more aged torsos walking and wading. Gerald Busby’s atonal score heightens the slightly alien aura. The pool is a spa for the elderly and infirm, a place where young women gently guide patients through simple exercises. The spa’s model employee is Millie (Duvall), an oddly beautiful and utterly by-the-book young woman possessing a certain women’s magazine glamour. We meet Millie as she trains Pinky (Spacek), a new employee who seems even younger, eager though mischievous. “You’re a little like me, aren’t you?” Millie says to Pinky at one point, and Pinky takes the comment to heart: what immediately begins between the two women is hard to put your finger on, but it’s as though Pinky initially exists devoid of some essence of personality, and her hero worship of Millie becomes something both more profound and sinister.
For all its emphasis on theme, ambiguity and aesthetic, refined performances are crucial to 3 Women. Duvall is simultaneously beguiling and pathetic as Millie, nurturing her attractiveness yet living in a virtual vacuum of human affection, and the magic of her performance is partially attributable to the fact that she practically invented her character, writing the diaries we hear her read, the shopping lists and recipes (Duvall even bought the groceries to make Millie’s ridiculous cheese spray hors d’oeurves). And Spacek transforms so seamlessly in the film’s second half of metaphysics and narrative leaps, going from child to temperamental seductress and back to child again. As well, both are funny, wearing their characters’ abundant eccentricities as though they were totally normal.
3 Women clearly owes something to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but it lives in its own separate world with its own psychic implications. Everything in 3 Women conspires to some larger, unspoken event: the Bohdi Wind murals of sexual monsters painted in empty swimming pools by Willie (Janice Rule), the third woman of the title; the snobbish twins at the spa who seem content to communicate only with each other; the appearance of an elderly couple who may or may not be Pinky’s parents but who haunt Millie with their otherness and repellent age. What does it all mean? The good news is that the audio commentary Altman provided for Criterion's DVD release a few years back is often illuminating without ever trying to explain it all. The rest is up to us.