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3 Women (1977); And Dream Logic in Films

August 21, 2015

I’ve come to realize that I don’t care much for movies rooted in dream logic. Perhaps I’m more left brained and literal than I like to give myself credit for, but after watching Robert Altman’s 3 Women I’ve found myself reevaluating my taste in films rooted in dream logic. Believe me, I get the reasoning behind the choice to implement dream logic in film. I thoroughly appreciate the films that use it to stretch the fabric of narrative possibilities. Nevertheless, these types of films rarely do it for me often times leaving me dissatisfied and frustrated.

I am a firm advocate of surrealist filmmaking and adamantly revere directors and writers who create complex tales that don’t always have a beginning, middle, or end. Luis Buñel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, Godard’s catalog, Harmony Korine’s cracked out storytelling, and a slew of other films and filmmakers with their sights set in surrealism or experimentation are beloved in my heart. Yet, for some reason most dream logic films go right over my head beginning with my introduction to it through Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. Every time I watch that film I am utterly spell-bound by the flawless cinematography and the way the narrative weaves in and out of dreamlike moments. But the spell gets broken without fail about an hour into it as its odd moments become tiring after some time. To this day after numerous attempts I shamefully admit I have yet to finish watching 8 ½.

3 Women held my interest. Even when it started to go off the deep end into a rambling mess of incoherent symbolism and inconsistent character development I still stayed behind it hoping for a satisfying ending that never came. Unlike the dream state residing films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or the works of David Lynch, I surprised myself by not hating 3 Women despite the senseless story it portrayed. Roger Ebert famously alluded 3 Women as the best film of 1977, but I believe the film’s success is largely owed to Altman’s phenomenal direction just as much as the brilliant performances from its lead actresses are.

Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek take the reins as the film’s leads under Altman’s ubiquitous lens and ears. In perfect Altman fashion he follows these women’s daily activities and monotonous conversations to showcase their budding, rocky friendship that develops when Pinky (Spacek) comes to work at an elderly hospital. As a new employee Pinky gets trained by Millie (Duvall), a talkative extrovert convinced that she is more well-liked than she actually is. Pinky becomes fascinated by Millie growing slightly obsessed and even idolizing her. Millie takes the opportunity to welcome a new friend ultimately deciding to move Pinky in as a roommate. While living together Pinky, Millie, and audiences learn just how strange both women are. Things become even more bizarre after Pinky attempts suicide unexpectedly awakening a new persona and problems for Millie.


Duvall and Spacek are astounding in their performances. Both women capture the endearing qualities coupled with the teeth-grating annoyances of their complex characters. Spacek’s character seeps an air of mistrust and ulterior motives as she is constantly spotted stealing bits and pieces of Millie’s personality and belonging. It’s Spacek’s famous wide eyes that shifts with suspicion that gives Pinky a creepy untrustworthy nature. Likewise, Duvall is brilliantly stellar in her role as Millie exuding an innocence and sweetness so thick that it becomes sickening. And yet despite her sweet intent Duvall plays up Millie’s ignorance extremely well showcasing her deep character flaw that punishes her throughout the film. Millie is a woman with delusions of grandeur, oblivious to the fact that she is less popular than she believes. Duvall makes watching her character painful at times as she traps herself in socially awkward situations that Altman ensures we can’t escape from until he’s ready.

Altman’s mastery behind the camera turns the film from a simple narrative into a dreamlike state filled with symbolism and uncertainty. Through tight edits we shift perspectives when watching the girls. We steadily watch them walk in stride with one another from long angles and seem too close for comfort in awkward strange moments. Altman’s motif of sound usage is ever-present in 3 Women. Using tracking shots to follow characters we never truly focus on their conversations alone. Instead we hear the rambling conversations of background characters as they comment on our main characters or topics in their own lives.

What I couldn’t shake with 3 Women was ultimately my lack of understanding what the hell I had just watched by the end. 3 Women begins one place and ends in a crater on the moon. The story is so incredibly different from what it is in its first half that it feels like you’re watching an entirely separate film with the same characters by the end. After researching 3 Women it became apparent that Altman devised the concept from a dream he had deciding to evoke his former dream state through random, symbolic imagery and nonsensical moments.


However, it’s hard for me to swallow and accept this as a means to make 3 Women successful in terms of storytelling. For me dream logic should equate itself with the nature of dreams in which everything is slightly askew and surreal. Symbols in dreams tend to be background aspects that we only notice when dissecting while awake. In 3 Women we are shown images of a mural painted by the 3rd woman so many times that it lacks meaning and becomes comical. The obvious symbolism at play that is never explained isn’t necessarily the frustrating part of 3 Women. Altman’s inclusion of repeated actions from characters that are meant to possess meaning is. We constantly see Pinky hiding her panties from Millie and washing them in sinks at random times. Yet these scenes, among other repeated ones, amount to nothing by the film’s end. They neither add nor take away from either character which prompts the question, why even use them when time could have been better spent fleshing out the ignored symbolism? After this is a controlled film, not an actual dream.

3 Women is a compelling film that captivates despite not really going anywhere or saying anything in its story. Altman once again proved his mastery of capturing humans at their most intriguing and vulnerable states, while Duvall’s stunning performance helped drive the point home. 3 Women’s ability to capture social awkwardness and uneasiness creates a visceral feeling that can’t be escaped the entire film and leaves you feeling uncomfortable and confused, but also completely fascinated with every aspect of it. It’s a film that I’d be interested to watch again, although I don’t really want to.

SEE IT. Netflix it, then let’s discuss what the hell this movie is actually about.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Carl permalink
    April 5, 2016 12:24 PM

    I believe that there is MUCH more than dream logic to Altman’s film. But it took seeing the film a few times for me to see it. The coda at the end of the film acts as a key, and once you see the logic behind it, I think it enhances the film and shows the wisdom and thoughtfulness Altman put into it. He is telling a rather universal story of the nightmarish experience a mother goes through when her daughter comes of age. Pinky is essentially a daughter figure, innocent, naive, ready to learn, and looking to her mother (Mille) as the center of the world. We see Millie blush with attention and adoration, the same high a mother experiences. Then the pool incident marks the sudden shift into adolescence where the daughter turns the relationship on its head. Seen in this light, Altman paints this phase in a mother’s life as a tragic, harrowing, and mysterious experience that’s as baffling as it is inevitable. Look for my review on Amazon called “3 Women – It DOES Make Sense” if you want to dive more into my take on it.

    • April 5, 2016 2:25 PM

      Very interesting perspective Carl. I never noticed a mother/daughter relationship between Millie and Pinky. I get what you’re saying though and am fascinated by that idea between the two of them. I don’t think my argument against dream logic encompasses all of Altman’s film because while he may include dream like sequences (MASH comes to mind), 3 Women is the only one I’ve seen of his that utilizes the device wholly. Thanks for the comment, I will definitely read your review! Can you link it here for ease of access?

  2. April 11, 2016 11:12 PM

    Sorry it took me a minute to get back to you, just now reading it and you make some truly fascinating points. I can definitely see how you read the film that way which makes me want to revisit it because I feel it’d make much better sense this time around. I love the atmosphere that Altman created but I couldn’t get around figuring out what the hell anything meant. I will watch this again sometime soon. It’s about time I have a Robert Altman night anyway. Thanks for commenting and leaving an amazing perspective change!

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