Why Did I Watch It? Keen to watch a few Altman’s I haven’t seen.
Pinky is a naive young woman who takes a job at an aged care facility. Showing her the ropes is Millie, a more worldly type that Pinky is instantly taken with. The older woman needs a roommate, and so they move in together. Pinky can now observe Millie as closely as she likes, and she tries to emulate her dress sense, mannerisms and interests; an unhealthy dynamic that Millie soon tires of.
After a bad argument, Pinky jumps off the roof of their apartment building. She lands in the swimming pool and ends up in a coma. Millie, plagued by guilt, dotes on her in hospital, and even takes the trouble to locate her parents in Texas. But everything is about to change. When Pinky wakes up, she not only claims to have never seen her parents before, but manifests an entirely different personality; she takes over the apartment, woos Millie’s sometime lover, uses her social security number. She also reveals a startling fact: her real name is ‘Mildred’. The women’s personalities have switched.
Director Robert Altman claimed that this intriguing, endlessly fascinating film came to him in a dream. He told Roger Ebert he woke up with, ‘the story, the casting, everything.’ And there is an undeniable dreamlike quality to what happens. Dreams are the subconscious reprocessing conscious events, although the manner is oblique. You might find yourself in a different job, in a different city or time period, surrounded by strangers, or people you know playing different people (just last night I had a vivid dream where I was in the Army, with an old friend from high school I have not seen for years). There is logic there, but it is obscured; dreams have symbolic meaning, but decoding them is complex and personal.
In this film, the main character’s switch of identities is like that in Bergman’s ‘Persona’, an inspiration Altman acknowledged. This element could be interpreted a number of ways. Is Pinky in a coma, visualising some wish fulfilment of her being more like Millie? Maybe. The film has shown that Millie’s seeming self confidence and active lifestyle are a sham; she is mostly ignored by the people she tries to interact with, and leads a lonely, empty life. Her endless talk of affairs and dates is another elaborate fantasy; the best she can manage, relationship wise, is the ageing, already married cowboy who runs the apartment building. But when Pinky becomes Millie, the fantasy becomes real; she is popular, and sought after, and has the world at her feet. A happy daydream played out in her mind?
The scenario is complicated by the third woman of the title. Willie is the cowboy’s pregnant wife, a silent presence mostly in the background, who paints giant sized, alarmingly weird, murals on the apartment building’s walls. Her role in events is elusive, although Pinky fixates on her art, staring at the pictures as though hypnotised.
The final scenes of the movie provide a new perspective. In a nightmarish moment straight out of a David Lynch film, Willie gives birth but only Millie is on hand to help; she sends Pinky to get a doctor, but she appears to be in a trance. The child dies, leaving Millie a blood covered, hysterical mess. We then cut to a scene where all three women retire to a house behind the apartment building. Either time has passed, or this is a new version of reality; they seem to be living together, and discuss what they are having for dinner. Millie calls Pinky her ‘child’. This allows for additional interpretation. They could be three generations of family – child, mother, grandmother – and the earlier parts of the movie could be one, or any, of their fantasies of the others lives. Or, perhaps, all three women are one and the same. The three ‘characters’ could be different parts of the one psyche, wrestling with past and present.
The film defies straightforward decoding. It could be any of these, a combination of them, or something else entirely. But it is gripping. Altman made his name in TV and his films are generally not that distinguished visually, but this is also a striking looking film. The scenes at the spa are shot in a sky blue/neon pink candy coloured glow, and the many scenes in the surrounding desert have a burnt orange hue that becomes oppressive. Millie’s fixation on yellow and white, to brighten her drab life, is a gaudy tactic that soon frays at the edges. And the film’s music, a restless, edgy score, also heightens the tone; it always feels like SOMETHING, is about to happen.
As Millie, Shelley Duvall is nothing short of sensational. I have seen her in many films over the years, and have enjoyed her acting without thinking she was in the highest rank. But this is a performance of depth and intricacy. Her cheery demeanour, and endless prattling chit chat, has an understated comedy to it that gives way to pathos as her barren existence is slowly revealed. She is the centre of the movie, and her character oscillations are subtler than the others; an amazing performance. Sissy Spacek is great too. I especially enjoyed her transformation into uber-Millie, a gum chewing, gun shooting, car steeling force of nature; the actor looks like she relished the transformation.
Undoubtedly one of Altman’s best movies. A classic of the era, and a brilliant film. A lot of re-watch value. Reading a bit about the backstory, I learned that there is a Criterion with commentary from the director, which I am very keen to check out.