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.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britneemade Boomer, Hanna, and Brandonwatch 3 Women (1977).
Britnee: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.
As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.
Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.
Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?
Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.
The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.
I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (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, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?
Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.
There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.
What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.
Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?
Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.
I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.
Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.
Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.
Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!
Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.
And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.
Upcoming Movies of the Month September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011) November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)
Robert Altman’s follow-up to the surprisingly potent (and far superior) Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear), applies the director’s casual, large-ensemble aesthetic to the colorful backdrop of Paris Fashion Week. Altman’s typically nonjudgmental tone is somewhat absent here as characters frequently devolve into the kind of self-parody you’d expect in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but they’re more or less charming all the same. Prêt-à-Porter is a loose, amused take on the fashion industry that tries to succeed less on having something to say and more on having someone interesting say it.
In true Altman form, the cast is stacked: Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Forrest Whitaker, Rupert Everett, Julia Roberts, Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett, Tracey Ullman, Cher, Naomi Campbell, Teri Garr, and Harry Belafonte all participate in some capacity. By filming during Paris Fashion Week, Altman achieves an even larger ensemble cast of familiar faces than usual, which unfortunately may be the film’s greatest accomplishment. I was drawn to Prêt-à-Porter when I read that even Björk had a brief cameo as a runway model. “Brief” is even a generous word for it, as she merely passes across the screen in her Mother Nature Incarnate mode, the (real life) fashion line she’s modeling having something to do with snow & wilderness. The themes of different fashion lines are a consistent source of amusement for the film as they each intensely focus on a singular, seemingly empty idea: boots, subway cars, Scotland, etc. An American news reporter with a Southern accent works as an audience surrogate as she politely navigates the vapidity of each runway show. One campaign simply marketing nudity, the complete absence of fashion, finally prompts her “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” Network moment & she storms off.
Prêt-à-Porter occupies a strange space between light ribbing and outright mockery. Parts of it feel like Altman’s fashion world version of Guest’s Best in Show, but it never completely tips in that direction. Other parts feel like an undercooked version of the everything-is-connected story Altman had told many times before in much better films. A couple hours loafing along with this impressive assortment of celebrities is not a particularly bad way to spend your time, especially if you have severe 90s nostalgia or an intense interest in the fashion industry, but it could’ve been a much better film if it pushed itself a little harder in any specific direction.