I’ve only seen six or seven films from Robert Altman’s large body of work, but based on those I associate him with fast-paced, overlapping dialogue (so that sometimes you have to replay a scene to catch everything that was said, and at other times you’re content with a general impression of the background chatter) as well as large casts of characters whose lives cross and collide (notably in Nashville, Short Cuts and Gosford Park). Lots of words, lots of people. There are some very beautiful images in Altman’s movies – McCabe and Mrs Miller comes immediately to mind – but on balance I thought of him as a director who was more interested in cinema as filmed literature than for its visual possibilities. So I was surprised to hear him say, in an audio-commentary track for his 1977 film 3 Women, that his ideal film “would be a painting with music”.
But then, I was unprepared for 3 Women in general. It has a stillness and a thread of menace that makes it different from any other Altman movie I’ve seen. Sure, there are a couple of those familiar, busy group scenes with half-heard dialogues, but more often there is drawn-out conversation between two people punctuated by stretches of silence, or the faraway sound of dripping water, or the distant echoes and dull thuds you might hear if you were submerged in a tank. Generally speaking, water plays a big part in this film, as does the idea of being unnoticed or cocooned. At times you might even be lulled into thinking the whole movie is taking place underwater, or in a place where the usual laws of time and space don’t apply. Even when the plot seems to be moving along “normally”, something feels a bit off.
That sounds suspiciously like a dream-world, I know (it also ties in with some of the recent discussions around Inception, notably in this Jim Emerson post), and indeed Altman claims he made 3 Women after he got the idea in a dream. Not the idea for the whole script, just the title, the desert setting, the basic concept of “personality-theft” (more accurately, the personalities of two women merging with each other) and the lead actresses Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, both of whom are outstanding.
Spacek plays a wide-eyed young girl named Pinky, who has just got a job at a spa for ailing senior citizens. She seems out of place from the first time we see her (it’s as if Spacek’s Carrie had escaped her tormenters the year before, erased a few memories and zombie-walked her way to a new town), and it isn’t surprising when she starts to idolise and imitate another employee, Millie (Duvall). They end up as room-mates, Millie shows Pinky around the desert town, Pinky behaves like a kid, putting her neck through a noose at a broken-down amusement park, yelling joyously when she sees a “miniature golf” signboard. This set-up leads you to expect a story about a worldly-wise woman becoming role model and guide to a waif. But that doesn’t happen. It soon becomes painfully obvious that Millie – seemingly smart and poised and self-sufficient – is just as much of a lost soul in her own way, and perhaps even more mentally fragile than her new friend. Though the two women rarely even raise their voices at each other, their mind-games escalate.
3 Women has plenty of vivid imagery that you’d associate with a dimly remembered dream: an unexpected zoom-in (probably the only one in the film) to twins gazing blankly at the camera, a childbirth scene filmed continuously in long-shot through the perspective of someone watching from outside the house, a recurring view of spooky murals created for a swimming-pool floor by the film’s “third woman”, an artist named Willie, and several blurred or shadowy shots of faces seen through a glass window. (The first time we see the three women together in the same frame, two of them are looking through a glass window at the third, whose reflection can be seen in the pane.) But at the same time, I thought the one explicit dream sequence – a montage of half-seen images – was the least interesting part of the film. It felt a bit like Robert Altman trying to be David Lynch (who, incidentally, made Eraserhead in the same year **) but without the same conviction or genuine feel for the material.
After watching 3 Women one-and-a-half times (because I wanted to listen to some of Altman’s audio commentary), I brushed off my DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and saw it all the way through: the relationship between Millie (as a caretaker/nurse) and Pinky (as her ward) had reminded me of Bibi Andersson’s nurse Alma looking after Liv Ullmann’s silent, uncommunicative Elisabeth (and Altman has apparently acknowledged the influence, though I didn't hear it on his commentary). But I had forgotten how quickly the roles start to shift in Bergman’s film, with Alma revealing private memories and doubts – and consequently her own emotional fragility – to her patient within the first 20 minutes of the film. I had also forgotten such specifics as the ambient water sounds in at least two key scenes in Persona.
3 Women might be considered a cinematic sibling to Bergman’s film (and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive might be a close first cousin, with Brian DePalma’s Sisters related to them all by marriage...but then, such associations can go on forever). It’s a film that seems self-consciously slow-moving in parts, but the lead performances keep you interested in the characters, and its quietness makes for a contrast to that very noisy and busy “dream” film that everyone has been talking about in the last month.
** One of those little connections I had no idea about until I saw the David Lynch Wikipedia entry. Sissy Spacek's husband Jack Fisk played the role of the creepy "Man in the Planet" in Lynch's Eraserhead, and Spacek herself received special thanks in that film's credits. And Fisk also did the production design for Mulholland Drive. Wonder if this makes Spacek and Fisk a "dream-couple".
(An old post about Altman’s M*A*S*H* here)