Standing in an aquarium with his arms outstretched, the Creature from the Black Lagoon makes a cameo appearance in Robert Altman’s 3 Women, but his presence is anything but gratuitous. Like everything else in this poetically unified film, he is there to echo, relect, or comment upon some other aspect of the movie. 3 Women is a movie filled with doubles and reflections. (The 3 women of the title double and reflect each other.) The half-human, half-reptile Creature is another version of the archetypal reptoid semi-humans that we see throughout the movie painted by artist Willie (Janice Rule) on walls and on the bottom of swimming pools. The enclosed tank in which the Creature stands is like the world of the film in microcosm, 3 clams or oysters (undoubtedly female) threatened by a predatory male — just as the 3 women of the title are threatened by “Edgar,” Willie’s hypermasculine, philandering husband. The tank is shot slightly from above to emphasize the tension between the water’s rippling surface on top and the murky world underneath, a visual motif repeated throughout the film, much of which is shot through rippling liquid. The colors in the frame – pale pinks and purples, yellow, and aquamarine – are the same colors that dominate the film as a whole. The fishtank anchors our viewpoint inside the apartment at the Purple Sage Motel that is shared by Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek), the film’s two main protagonists.
This is not a static shot, however, but the beginning of a very slow zoom from inside Millie’s and Pinky’s second-story apartment through the fishtank to the motel courtyard below. Slow, nearly subliminal, zooms were characteristic of Altman’s widescreen visual style from the 1970s onward. Where a tracking shot defines space, emphasizing its three-dimensionality, a zoom collapses space, making it fluid, dreamlike, and subjective. As this particular zoom proceeds, our attention shifts from foreground to background. Seen through the tank, as though she were one of its watery inhabitants, Willie enters the courtyard from frame left to perform some gardening. The rippling line at the top of the frame marking the difference between surface and depth becomes increasingly blurred. The zoom subjectively links Millie and Pinky, inside, to Willie, outside.
Altman interupts the zoom to show us a shot of Pinky – or rather, Pinky’s mirror image – staring at Willie as Millie chatters offscreen. This, too, is reflective of the film as a whole and the way it defines its two main characters. Millie talks. Pinky looks.
Pinky rises and crosses in front of the mirror.
The camera follows her as she kneels down beside the fishtank to observe more closely.
And Willie returns her look.
3 Women began as an abstract concept, supposedly based on a dream that Altman had, and grew organically from there. Notwithstanding its abstract dreamlike qualities, suspended somewhere between Bergman’s Persona and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., the specificity of 3 Women’s Palm Desert locations – the health spa where Millie and Pinky work, the Purple Sage Motel where they live, the frontier-style bar where Edgar and the other men shoot guns and ride dirtbikes – along with the depth and detail of Spacek’s and Duvall’s performances, gives the film a lingering resonance that Altman’s other dream films (Images, Quintet) lack.
SPOILER ALERT. When, halfway through the film, Pinky attempts suicide by jumping from the second floor into the motel pool, the film’s various poetic threads come together. Pinky floats comatose with her arms outstretched like the Creature at the top of this post. Viewed through the rippling water, the reptoid monsters painted on the bottom of the pool writhe ominiously.
Freud told us that water imagery was symbolic of the womb. Altman evidently took him seriously. Thus, Pinky doesn’t die from her plunge into the waters of the unconscious, but is reborn with an entirely different personality. Identities mingle and blur. As Altman says, the 2 women become 3 women who become 1. What eventually dies within the film is 20th Century patriarchy, leaving behind a unified female family who need a man, as the saying goes, like a fish needs a bicycle.