3 Women & The Rip Current of Dreams


Much can be made of dreams. They are ephemeral pockets of panic, subletted by a motoring mind. They bounce, dive, and thrash through perforated memories and blanched realities. Things are readily amiss, and often times trounce through uncanny valleys. Director Robert Altman found himself in the throes of a distressed reverie, one pained evening, when he was in fear of his wife’s life. Out of the cataclysmic humming came the skeletal outline of his 1977 film, “3 Women”. A pendulum of nightmares disguised as a slice-of-life tale about two roommates, the fever dream of a picture posits questions about identity, repetition compulsion, and the assignment of emotion.

Millie (Shelley Duvall) is naively self-involved and flutters about in innocuous, mostly carefree, monologues. She lets cigarettes burn down to her knuckles as she describes tuna melt recipes with the stagnate inertia of a week-old party balloon. Life is lived well, in Millie’s opinion, if she can walk into the weekend with a torch in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other. Her roommate, Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is the antithesis of Millie’s garrulous, manicured aesthetic. Pinky clumsily bops from one room to the next, breaking the silence with forced barks of laughter or mannered bouts of excitement. She pivots between uncertain awkwardness and quiet balefulness. When she accidentally breaks cocktail jars or grabs the wrong punch card, there seems to be, more often than not, a dutiful patience and carefully orchestrated execution to her mistakes. An eventual confrontation between Millie and Pinky begins to surface through the veins of broken concrete.

The winding discourse of psychology in film truly begins with Sam Fuller; weaves its way through David Lynch’s vermilion, and altogether unsettling, world; and finds itself being rediscovered in modern cinema by the likes of Jonathan Glazer and Denis Villeneuve. In an aggressive sociopolitical climate, earmarked by id, the serpentine nuances of open interpretation have been scuttled to the sea floor. But the odd, reptilian-like “3 Women” lives on in films distributed by A24 (“The Witch,” “Enemy,” “Ex Machina,” and “The Lobster” are just a few films under the studio’s masthead that fit this particular color-scheme).

Even though the tome of Robert Altman will best be remembered by the florid electricity of “The Player” or the studded vignettes of “Nashville,” the hot tiles of “3 Women” will be his most venerable accomplishment as a filmmaker. From the ghoulish guffaws of a disembodied toy head to the atypically manic and baritone baying of Sissy Spacek, this is a film that crawls with chaos and clicks like an insect’s wings.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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