The film opens in a sort of dream space and never quite leaves even as on the outset many sequences (especially in the first hour or so) seem fairly straight forward. Curiously, 3 Women came about allegedly from Altman's own dreams-- in action that surely should be one of the great backstage stories of the much lionized American cinema of the 1970s, Altman was able to sell this strange story without a completed screenplay to a major Hollywood studio (in this case, Fox) based solely on reputation. The opening titles themselves seem to immediately sell 3 Women as a go-all-in sort of feature-- surrender to it!
Millie (Duvall, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes that year) works at a senior health spa. She's a talkative, confident, endearingly independent woman. Yet there's something off right away about her, for when she speaks (that would be often), her colleagues, neighbors and "friends" don't even bother to pretend to acknowledge her, they even sometimes openly mock her. She's absolutely delusional, but an indelibly offbeat characterization. Millie's world is changed by Pinky (Spacek), a fresh in town Texan who begins to work with Millie and quickly build up not just a friendship, but a possessiveness of Millie. Pinky, by contrast to Millie's outwardly plucky demeanor is timid, fragile, a bit frightening and possibly borderline autistic-- all arriving a year following Carrie White. Slowly, Pinky ingratiates herself into becoming Millie's roommate and things just get weirder from there.
There's a third woman (as the title suggests)-- that would be Willie (Janis Rule), and the odd lot they create as the film reaches its twisty, confounding conclusion. Or maybe not. The draw and the magic of 3 Women seems to shroud the leading actresses in a sort of loosely designed set of limbo as they reflect and refract from one another. Visually, it's sumptuous and arguably one of the most audacious in the entire Altman canon as the characters all seemingly float along and pick and take from one another.
My favorite scene in the film (I'm not even sure yet why this my favorite scene in the film or if that will extend on further viewings or not) revolves around nothing particularly dramatic, yet the eerie undercurrent of future horror rears its head nonetheless. Pinky has just moved in and Millie is preparing dinner. The scene starts, seemingly innocuously as Millie is describing the ideal way to make tuna melts and Pinky is altering a sleeping gown given to her by Millie. The camera snaps a shot of a reflected Pinky and Millie. Suddenly Spacek, so short and so fragile, has grown in stature and just barely towers over Duvall, a stark change in everything, mostly reality- just like the movie. A perfectly subtle cue for the power ploys that face the relationship later on. That the image is just slightly out of focus adds to the shady allure and dreaminess.