There is something alluring in spectating those who relish playing a role, in witnessing characters peel back and expose the transience of their personas. 1977 saw Robert Altman’s 3 Women consider the nourishment made possible by imitation, ventriloquised by the impish outsider Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) in tandem with her visual opposite, the magazine-obsessed, “thoroughly modern” Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall). Introduced at their place of work and bound together as roommates, Pinky and Millie’s inseparability confers the film’s hyperrealism. Sun-bleached exteriors are tinged with a camp sensibility, with artificiality. All things exist in Sontagian quotation marks*. A rock is not a rock, but a “rock”; a snake is not a snake, but a “snake”. Pinky is enamoured by the whimsical decor of Millie’s apartment, complete with fashionable novelties: a secret stow-away bed, figurines submerged in a fish tank. One could write an essay on the ultra-processed food Millie holds as tokens of dinner-party savoir-faire. Beyond their respective social inelegance, with others and each other, the two women appear to occupy a world out of joint. Artifice envelops pathos, appearances are rooted in misrepresentation.
Plunged into the balmy milieu of a hydrotherapy spa, we see uniformed young women sedately guide clients around a wading pool. At odds with the stasis and anonymity that characterises this space—one devoted to the care of aging bodies—the young women stand out. The camaraderie and frivolity of their conversations and the languid pace of their work are recognisable images. Except, not everyone shares this communality. Our introduction to Millie sees her assist an older woman around the pool whilst adopting the cadence of a veteran nurse humouring a long-serving patient. As expected in the drowsiness of this environment, the client is harmlessly inattentive to Millie, though we soon discover that all Millie's addressees are equally unresponsive. Invariably alone, Millie drifts through the spa as if invisible to her colleagues. With almost charming albeit equally unsettling indirectness, she leaves work mere steps behind the other employees and monologues an interest in attending a hula dancing class (“I think it’s sexy!”) before stepping into a Ford pinto embellished with floral decals. The car door traps the hem of her skirt—a figurative interruption to her soliloquy.
It’s unsurprising that an outsider would take a shine to Millie. She’s an emblem of contemporary femininity; she rather captivatingly flouts the ignorance of her peers, choosing to voice her desires and distastes regardless. Her personality is part of the atmosphere—it is temptingly available. Pinky is also undaunted by her surroundings, though, unlike Millie, her confidence is draped in immaturity. Her first day at the spa (shadowing Millie) renders visible her juvenile qualities: she cavorts in a wheelchair while no one is looking, she theatrically embodies the role of a patient as part of Millie’s training. “You're little like me,” observes Millie, as she finds Pinky a uniform. There is something sororal in Pinky’s curiosity towards Millie. Boasting a veneer of magazine-fed knowledge and style, Millie awakens in Pinky a desire to play the facade of womanhood, to grow up. “Don’t you both have something in common?” the spa’s resident doctor prompts the women. Though the doctor means only to remark on how both women are from Texas, his words carry an air of inevitability. They surmise the women’s eventual overlap.
Famously ad-libbed by Duvall herself, Millie endlessly details her dietary preferences. She speaks a language beyond her years, communicating through dated idioms: “they call tomatoes love-apples but I sure don’t love ‘em”, “a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Millie’s gauche inability to register someone’s disinterest, combined with her endless admissions of trivial chitchat, suggests that her priority is not to be understood but to be heard. Before Pinky’s arrival, Millie’s fascination with 1970’s womanhood—contraceptive pills, dinner parties, organisational recipe books, all of which attest to her identity as both on-trend and attractive—failed to be appreciated by an outsider. Finally, the persona she so carefully nurtures is received; it earns her an audience.
There’s a scene wherein the two women are in Millie’s car and Pinky shifts the conversation from inconsequential small talk to a pair of twins they work with. “Do you think they know which one they are?” Pinky asks, keen to learn Millie’s thoughts. “Maybe they switch back and forth…maybe they’re the same one all the time.” Perhaps obviously, the twins signal Altman’s interest in duality. Their presence, hauntingly non-verbal, confirms the film’s hyperreality; they hazily portend the trajectory to which Millie and Pinky are fated. Indeed, Pinky’s verbalisation as to whether or not the twins are ever disconnected conjures the interchangeability she seeks for herself and Millie, it speaks it into the air.
Soon they arrive at Dodge City, a rural bar-cum-shooting-range and a favourite haunt of Millie’s. It’s run by Willie (who we later learn is the titular third woman), a pregnant artist who rarely speaks and paints murals of hybrid creatures, and her husband Edgar, a has-been stunt-double who is illicitly involved with Millie. Out of the urban sprawl and into the dust, the bar resembles a tired film-set of a Western saloon, cloaked in a mirage of artificial rocks, rattlesnakes, and teepees. Every object is ornamental and papery, not to be touched or else it’ll collapse. Here, much to Pinky’s delight, the two women learn that there is, in fact, a likeness between them besides their Texan upbringings. Beneath the gaze of Willie and in orbit of her unsettling murals, Millie and Pinky learn that their forenames are the same. This commonality is food for Pinky’s desire to worm inside Millie’s identity—all she needs is a jolt.
One evening, to Pinky’s disapproval, Millie consummates her affair with Edgar. Furious at Pinky’s perceived meddling, Millie suggests Pinky moves out of their apartment. In distraught and literal compliance, Pinky exits the apartment and hovers at the edge of the building’s communal pool—once owned by Edgar and Willie, it is painted with the same mythological creatures. Gazing into the tepid evening water, Pinky outstretches her arms and imitates the serpentine forms. Before long, she plunges slack onto the water's surface, rendering her comatose. Some days after her hospitalisation, after being visited by Millie daily, Pinky awakens, thrilled to learn of Millie’s steadfast concern. Yet, Pinky soon grows distressed as she fails to recognise the parents Millie has contacted and brought to her from Texas. Tentatively, and aware of Altman’s deception with all representations, we wonder whether or not they are Pinky’s parents at all. Memory loss becomes a vessel of the surreal; certainty is supplanted by doubt.
Facilitated by her amnesia, and as a direct absorption of Millie, Pinky’s at-home recovery sees her develop a far more assertive personality—she takes over their shared bedroom, drinks, smokes, and shoots out back at Dodge City. She demands to be called Mildred, the birth name Millie detests, she writes entries in Millie's diary, she befriends the same neighbours who have long rejected Millie’s company. Indeed, Pinky inhabits Millie to the point of falsity. Bending reality, Pinky obscures the very subject of her infatuation.
This emendation has its price. Pinky falls victim to hallucinatory dreams: images of the twins are overlaid with Willie's face; Millie weeps and fades into the taunting forms that swell at the bottom of the pool; Pinky mimics the laughter of Edgar’s animatronic bar fixture ‘Dirty Gertie’, blurring the line of person and object. Vulnerably, Pinky awakens and seeks Millie for comfort. “Dreams can’t hurt ya,” Millie consoles, inviting Pinky to join her in the stow-away bed. The image of the two women nestled together seems to restore the slippage of their identities. “I’m just going to shut out the light,” soothes Millie.
Prior to Altman, fluid identities had long fascinated directors. Ingmar Bergman's 1966 Persona saw imitation, in particular, as fertile ground to explore the precarity of individuality, perhaps as a response to contemporary melancholia. Indeed, the 60s and early 70s were an epoch defined by images of war and protest—to flee one’s identity became all too alluring. And yet, this doesn’t account for the distinctly feminine sensibility of both 3 Women and Persona. Beyond the general sense of alienation, it appeared women possessed their own reasons to imitate. Primed by women’s liberation and the proliferation of mass media, soaking up the culture became a prerogative—to switch off was at best unfashionable, at worst apolitical. When one’s identity is so inflected by the culture—Millie is a product of marketable 70s femininity—it bends towards a collective identity. Playing a part keeps you in the game, it provides a protective sheen.
Succeeding its prologue, Persona narratively begins with actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman) as she experiences a moment of blankness mid-performance, after which she stops speaking altogether. Much like Willie in 3 Women, Elisabet exists rather meta-cinematically; she glacially traverses a rehabilitation clinic in a white gown, her spectrality is reminiscent of actresses from the silent era. Alma (Bibi Andersson), Elisabet's sprightly palliative nurse, stands for the opposite. She is earthly: talkative, modest. Together they move to a remote seaside cottage to remedy Elisabet’s ‘sickness’—one is tempted to consider the importance of rurality in Persona and 3 Women, but that’s for another essay. Lulled by the silence, and as a means to earn Elisabet’s trust, Alma speaks incessantly and confidentially. Secrets feed on an empty stage; silence teases them out.
And yet, to confess oneself so uninhibitedly proves treacherous. Unlike 3 Women’s Millie who relishes the availability of her identity, Alma’s personality buckles under the strain of admission. With every confession, something within her twists.
Arrival at one of the film’s most iconic images sees Elisabet and Alma looking at each other in a mirror. Faces and hands superimpose a near-identical shot with hypnotic tactility. Precisely through the women’s reflected doubleness, the boundary between subject and spectator is complicated—who are we looking at? Are they looking back at us? Bergman obscures cinema’s fundamental disposition to represent by closing the gap. Audiences no longer peer inside a portal to another realm, but into a mirror. They’re met with a frosted gaze.
Though other titles have played beneath a similar patina of duality, take David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, it is Altman’s relatively lesser-known 3 Women that sees imitation flourish amidst a distinctly spurious aesthetic. Bleached in pastel, everything is artificial, a copy, a “snake”. To inhabit this duplicitous terrain, one must adapt. One must abandon the myth of the individual. By the film’s end, the three women are estranged to the feverish desert, unable to disentangle—their roots are too deep, too entwined. An identity transference softens the cruelty of individuality. Imitation becomes a gesture of empathy, a sigh of relief.