I think we involuntarily create what can be described as cinema when we sleep, and in that way I think dreams and cinema are inherently linked. It’s incredible the way that dreams are often cryptic, can conjur up any image imaginable and tell any story inside of your own head without your consent. In a way we all create movies when we are in our unaware sleeping states. Robert Altman's 3 Women is essentially a film where the director finds himself trying to recreate a dream. Altman is a director who has always used techniques like slow zooms and dissolves, but never have they been more radical than in this film. The techniques that Altman uses throughout function to create a film that visually is reaching for a dream like state, and he succeeds. There is one scene specifically near the end of the picture that I'd even go as far to say is Altman's greatest sequence. In this sequence Altman uses dissolves in a way that perfectly encapsulate the way dreams feel. His images fade on top of one other, shift, double, are cut in half, and morph, and it's punctuated by Gerald Busby's ominous score. It evokes everything Altman was trying to do in creating this dream/nightmare world and a moment of pure stylistic power.
However, the masterful dissolve dream wouldn’t be what it is without everything the picture does prior to that moment. Millie (Shelly Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) are our guides through this underpopulated, seemingly sinister California town. They meet each other by chance after Pinky applies to work at the same health spa as Millie. The shy Pinky instantly attaches herself to Millie’s buyout personality and cheery disposition. After getting to know each other a little better Pinky and Millie agree to live together. Pinky is really blown away by Millie’s perfect apartment and her beautiful clothes. It almost feels like she tries to become her. Millie grows increasingly bothered by her roommate’s personality to the point where Pinky actually tries to kill herself. There is a feeling of impending doom in all of these scenes and that is all released in her suicide attempt. When she recovers her personality has shifted with Millie and the two have reversed roles. There is no explanation why and the clues we’re given in regards to her identity are minimal (the social security card, her parents). I’m unsure at this point if she even exists. In many earlier scenes Millie needed a friend. She was alone and chatting away to herself while people around ignored her. She may even be a manifestation of Millie’s own personality and her need for someone when she was alone. The idea that 3 Women is a dream picture lends itself to vastly different interpretations, and what I really love about it is that there is never a clear cut answer to anyone’s hypothesis. It gives the film a kind of looseness and unpredictability that I think is entirely necessary for it to succeed.
I haven’t mentioned the 3rd woman yet, and I think she is possibly the most cryptic of all these characters. She doesn’t say much in the film and her screen time is much shorter than Pinky and Millie, but I think Willie (Janice Rule) is perhaps the most important character in 3 Women. I think she represents God. She has a few big scenes that I think unravel the meanings of her character. In the beginning she is seen mostly as a silent artist who is painting on everything. She creates these odd murals everywhere she goes, and I’m still not sure what they mean, but they are an example of creation. She often destroys her own work as well when she takes a gun to it, which backs up the idea that she is a God like figure if you assume her art is the life she has given in this world. The other significant scene that backs up the idea of a God figure is Pinky’s second birth. Right before Pinky attempts suicide Altman cuts to the pool she is about to dive in and zooms in slowly on Willie’s mural. It’s a creature that is pregnant with a child. When Pinky jumps and is then pulled out of the water she is reborn with an entirely new personality by way of Willie’s art. Everything in this world, at least the two characters we follow, runs through Willie first. She’s an omnipresent figure and her presence looms over every scene.
After saying all of this though I’m less interested in interpretation than the feeling the picture evokes. These two theories clash and perhaps that is another reason why the film is dream as well as cinema. Nothing has to make sense all the time in this world and I’m not sure anything does, but Altman evokes those feelings of submersion, haze, and mystery that infest all of us when we go to sleep at night.