Bonus Features: 3 Women (1977)

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.

Persona (1966)

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).

Images (1972)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 2: Persona (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Persona (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Persona is referenced on pages 1, 154, 267, and 270. It is the film most often referenced in Roger’s book. He first likens its opening credits & mid-film “break” to the way life & memory flicker into existence, initially without cohesion. He later describes how as a young critic he met an inability to discuss exactly what happens in the film, which prompted him to write about what happened to him as an audience instead (a technique of critical subjectivity he would return to often). He also describes Bergman’s casting of the film as being surprisingly impulsive in a brief anecdote.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ At a crucial moment in his plot the film seemingly breaks, and after it rips for a dozen frames it seems to catch fire within the projector. We see it melting on the screen. Then blackness, then light and then the old silent comedies again, as Persona starts again at the beginning.” – From his 1967 review for the Chicago Sun Times

Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear–as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to Persona is a literal one.” – From his 2001 review in his “Great Movies” series

There are two massive, go for broke moments in Ingmar Bergman’s small cast drama Persona that tend to overwhelm discussion of the film. The first is the film’s opening six minutes. A chaotic montage of loose film strips, whirring projectors, impossibly bright light bulbs, grainy footage of what looks like a silent era horror, spiders, human hands, animal slaughter, exposed organs, an erect penis, and crucifixion imagery overwhelm the film’s first breaths. Even today these fist few minutes of visual chaos are disturbingly vivid, but difficult to pinpoint with any certainty as to what they could mean, exactly. Somewhere in the fog I see a progression of life art death, but that personal interpretation is far from concrete in any significant way. As difficult as it is to decipher Persona‘s opening minutes today, it’s even more of a mystery to me what the experience would’ve been like for someone watching the film fifty years ago. As if that opening barrage weren’t enough, Bergman then repeats the trick a second time in the film’s second Go For Broke moment. A little over halfway into the film’s runtime the movie essentially breaks down & returns to the visual chaos of its opening minutes, wiping the slate clean & completely changing the rules of its delicately laid-out narrative. It makes total sense that these two moments would dominate most discussion of Persona & the strange places its story goes in its haunting final minutes, but for the most part the film itself is a rather quiet, intimate drama.

A somewhat mousy nurse is assigned as a caretaker for an actress who has not spoken in three months’ time. After a dreary stay at a hospital, the two women attempt a therapeutic, seaside respite to help cure the actress of her anxieties. To fill the void left by her nonverbal companion, the nurse gabs incessantly, first about seemingly nothing at all and then about deep seated fears & regrets. Take away the two experimental jaunts of rapidfire montage & Persona is mostly a collection of monologues, sometimes delivered directly to the audience in a way of breaking the fourth wall that recalls the grave seriousness of a stage play instead of the winking Ferris Beullers of the world. The topics covered in these speeches are a wide range of concerns from the importance of art in people’s lives to a distant memory of casual sex & subsequent abortion. If it were anyone but Bergman at the helm, the film’s existential crises could possibly play as arthouse self-parody, especially once one character starts pondering about “the hopeless dream of being. Not seeing but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war between what you are with others & who you truly are.” The navel-gazing & despair in Persona is so tragically sincere, however, that there’s no way to avoid being arrested by it. Bergman may work with a tone of cinematic obfuscation that’s been copied & parodied endlessly in the last few decades, but he does it with such sincerity & confidence that it still knocks you on your ass, despite familiarity with how his style has been assimilated into cinema at large. In a lot of ways the bare bones monologues of Persona can be just as unsettling as the film’s Big Risk montages of pure light & sound.

Of course, Persona‘s ambitious Big Risk montages & low-key, confessional monologues cannot be considered in total isolation. One plays directly into the other. Shortly before Persona‘s mid-film narrative “break”, the overly-talkative nurse confesses to her silent companion “Somehow I think I could change myself into you if I tried. I mean, inside. You could be me, just like that.” An act or two of betrayal sets in motion the pure light & sound montage “break” that allows that fantasy to become a tangible reality. The two women’s identities shift & meld. Ugly anxieties about fear of motherhood & questions of sexual desire bubble to the surface in such a horrific, unsettling way that you could consider the film a work of avant-garde horror if you view it in the right context. Persona was my first introduction to Bergman as a filmmaker and I’ve heard that entry point likened to jumping into the deep end. This is a messy, languid picture that somehow pulls together a pointed & purposeful tone from the wreckage without ever affording the audience a clear picture of what exactly is transpiring.

It’s no surprise, then, that reviewing Persona was such a daunting task for a young Ebert or that the film resonated with him in such a vivid way throughout his life & career. One thing I picked up while reading over his reviews of the film that I may have missed the first time I watched it was how artificial the whole thing felt. While watching Bergman’s so-called “Silence of God” trilogy during our Movie of the Month discussion of The Seventh Seal last year, I became intensely focused on the way the director called attention to the artificiality of his films by making them feel like staged plays. Returning to Persona (with Ebert’s take in mind) made me realize how much that film in particular pushes that idea to an extreme. In the film, Bergman not only calls into focus the artificial stage of his  narrative, but also the medium through which he delivers it. Literal film strips & projectors appear in the film’s two biggest moments (even breaking down the narrative in the second instance) and the film’s final scene cuts away to show camera crews filming the actors on set. As Ebert puts it, “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ […] We have been brutally reminded that the story is being filtered through technical equipment.” Persona‘s ambiguity & existential distress is rewarding enough on its own to demand multiple viewings, but looking for that self-referential artificiality in the film was alone well worth a revisit.


Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)


 Brandon’s Rating: (4.5/5, 90%)


Next Lesson: Apocalypse Now (1979)

-Brandon Ledet