Our current Movie of the Month, the eerie mind-melter 3 Women, feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman film. I’m used to seeing Altman in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Ready to Wear, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. It belongs more to a lineage of psychological thrillers about mutually obsessed women than it belongs in Altman’s extensive catalog of chatty ensemble-cast comedies. As a result, recommending further viewing to anyone who enjoyed 3 Women and wanted to see more movies on its delicately horrific wavelength is going to have to be more about the content & genre of the film itself than the storied career of the beloved auteur behind it.
Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience similar dreamlike horrors about the fluidity of reality & personae.
I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other meld & swap personae, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for them (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats. In fact, it’s bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona.
Bergman’s arthouse classic is about a stoic stage actress’s beachside recovery under the care of a chatty nurse, who dotes on her far beyond the boundaries of a typical patient-caretaker dynamic. Over the course of their mental health getaway, their shared ugly anxieties surrounding fear of motherhood & amoral sexual desire bubble to the surface in such a horrific, unsettling way that you could consider the film a work of avant-garde horror. By the end of the film, the two women’s individual personae are inextricably mangled together in the wreckage of an abstract narrative that somehow remains one of the most chilling, bizarre specimens of this genre even after being mutated into so many loving imitations.
Robert Altman claimed that 3 Women was inspired entirely by a dream, not designed as a conscious homage to Persona. It’s difficult to fathom that Persona had no influence on his own personae-melding arthouse freak-out, though, especially considering the way Shelley Long’s endless mundane monologues mirror the ramblings of Bergman’s chatty nurse. Maybe 3 Women was inspired by a dream Altman had after watching Persona alone after midnight, stoned and unnerved (which happens to be the perfect viewing conditions for the film, in case you’re looking for a proper setting).
While the exact level of influence Persona may have had on 3 Women will remain a mystery, the film does become less of an anomaly in Altman’s filmography once you dig around his earlier, scrappier works. 3 Women shares a lot of thematic DNA with Altman’s 1972 psychological horror Images in particular, which finds the director sinking even deeper into the familiar tones & tropes of genre filmmaking. Images practically feels like Altman taking a stab at making a giallo film (or its American equivalent, anyway), and that early-career experiment unexpectedly telegraphed a lot of what he would later develop into more idiosyncratic territory with 3 Women.
Susannah York stars in Images as a schizophrenic author who can’t find her footing within her increasingly fluid sense of reality. Mostly alone in her mountainside cabin while writing a children’s fantasy novel, York is tormented by visitors & phone calls – mundane interruptions she cannot distinguish from violent hallucinations. In particular, she cannot nail down which of these “visitors” is actually her husband, as his image is continually swapped out with other men from her past (who equally feel entitled to her body) as well as her own doppelganger. It is unclear whether Altman is implying that she’s tormenting herself with guilt over past infidelities or if this is a traditional Driven Mad By The Patriarchy story, but the immersive, disorienting editing style makes for a compelling watch all the same – especially once she decides to start killing off her hallucinated(?) visitors to finally get some peace & quiet.
I wish Altman tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often. He’s damn good at it. Britnee also recommended the false-imprisonment thriller That Cold Day in the Park as another one of Altman’s genre-heavy outliers, but the shifting personae surrealism of Images shares such a wide thematic overlap with 3 Women that it practically feels like a trial run. Plus, it features an uncharacteristically sparse, arrhythmic score from John Williams of all people, which alone makes it worth a look.
Single White Female (1992)
Maybe you don’t want to watch all these highfalutin arthouse echoes of 3 Women‘s basic themes. Maybe you want the dumbed down, fast food version of the story. Look no further than 1992’s Single White Female, which sleazes up Altman’s story of a fragile young girl usurping her older, more popular roommate’s persona for the Joe Eszterhas & Adrian Lyne era of erotic thrillers.
Single White Female is one of those great-premise/mediocre-execution thrillers that gets referenced more often than it gets watched. Based on a popular novel and successful enough to have earned a sequel, the film obviously left a cultural mark despite offering the least nuanced, most inane possible version of a young woman melding with (or, in this case, deliberately stealing from) the persona of her girl-crush. In fact, it left such an impact that in verb-form one character “Single White Femaling” another has become short-hand for the trope. That’s such a bizarrely substantial legacy for a film where basically none of its imagery or on-screen action has any detectable presence in modern pop culture.
To be fair, Single White Female does work surprisingly well as an erotic melodrama relic of its era, mostly because Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as the villain is an ice bath of off-putting character choices. Her intense fascination with her prettier, more graceful roommate isn’t allowed to be as delicately menacing as Sissy Spacek’s fascination with Shelley Duvall in 3 Women – at least not by the time she transforms into a full-on Norman Bates slasher villain in the third act. Still, her masterfully unsettling screen presence saves the film from being just a camp novelty, elevating to something genuinely eerie even when it’s at its silliest. Mind you, she did win the prestigious MTV Movie Award for Best Villain for the role.
If you’re going to engage with this genre in any significant way, you might as well experience it at its trashiest (and take in a phenomenal performance from Leigh while you’re at it). After all, we can’t survive on a diet of eerie, dreamlike arthouse oddities alone. It’s important to gobble down some junk-food cinema every now & then as a pick-me-up.