Surgery having prevented me from contributing to a week where a damn Disney film, of all things, was on the table, I’m pleased to be able to rejoin the fun with Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience. This week, the game takes us to an absolutely exquisite movie, Robert Altman’s 1977 psychodrama mindfuck picture 3 Women; a strong candidate for the title of Altman’s most unfairly obscure movie, give or take 1974’s California Split (both films are underseen for virtually identical reasons relating to a much-delayed debut on home video owing to music issues; indeed, California Split is at present out-of-print). It’s also, perhaps, the most uncharacteristic film of the director’s career, prior to his run of filmed plays in the early 1980s: it’s a two-person character study instead of one of the messy ensemble pieces that make up most of his best-known work, and it’s exclusively focused on women, which is even more unusual in Altman.
And yet, it’s absolutely, unmistakably the work of its director, bearing the familiar rhythms of scenes and much of the focus handed over to actors being encouraged to muck about and explore and make spectacularly odd choices. It boasts the best performance of Shelley Duvall’s career, and no director ever knew better how to free up Duvall to give great performances than Altman did.
The scenario, adapted from a dream Altman had, with little attempt to force it into a traditional narrative framework, is obviously indebted to Bergman’s Persona: two women, Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), cross paths, move in together at Pinky’s curiously intense insistence, and their personalities start to bleed into each other. There’s a great deal more to it than that, and if you haven’t seen the movie, I would beg you on bended knee to do so sooner rather than later. All I’ve done is sketch out enough to explain why I picked the shot I did, which skews to the “obvious” side of the ledger relative to some of the choices I’ve made in this series, but when a theme presents itself as boldly and impressively as 3 Women‘s depiction of duality and interior psychological breakage, I think one can be excused for bending towards the obvious.
At this moment in the story, about 75 minutes in, Pinky lies in the hospital in a coma, and Millie, who has grown increasingly frustrated with the girl’s socially oblivious weirdness, is having the breakdown that will come to all of us when somebody who has been acting in a way that annoys us suddenly goes through a terrible crisis, and our fear for their well-being is compounded for guilt at the knowledge that we’ve been kind of shitty to them. So that’s Point #1.
Point #2 is that this is the exact moment where the distinction between Millie and Pinky starts to break down, and from here on out the disorienting role-reversal between them is the driving force of the drama. Not that it’s really a “drama”, and not that it really possesses a “driving force”.
At any rate, it’s awfully kind of Altman and cinematographer Charles Rosher, Jr. (I would feel remiss in failing to point out that Charles Rosher, Sr. was co-cinematographer of Sunrise) to mark this point with such a dramatic literalisation of the film’s psychological analysis: what’s going on in that reflection could be accurately described as both “doubling” and “splitting”, and so could much of the plot of 3 Women, which both showcases the ways in which Millie and Pinky are variants on a single identity, and violently, even horrifyingly depicts the splintering that happens in both of their minds once they begin to reassert individual, unique selves. A process that is more than a little brutal and cruel.
And so: we have two Shelley Duvalls, and we also have a rending of Shelley Duvall into fragments, in a moment of intense emotion and open grief. 3 Women is about too many things to have one primary reading, but the one I prefer is perfectly embodied in that image: too much feeling, internal rupture, a confusion of which individual is the “real” owner of a given identity. It’s not always the case that one shot so perfectly sums up my feelings towards a film, but sometimes one gets lucky, and it feels right this, one of the most visually complex and nuanced films Altman ever made, would be one of those times.