1/ 3 Women is a strange film, an enigmatic and ambiguous film that can be interpreted in multiple ways.
If you think of it in the tradition of Persona, there is also a merging of identities, but Pinky doesn’t become Millie; she becomes the person Millie thinks she is.
In this interpretation, 3 Women can be grouped with Persona and Mulholland Drive. But it leaves out Willie, the 3rd woman in the film.
2/ From another perspective, Pinky (loses herself and) turns into her object of desire.
3/ Another interpretation is that at the beginning of the film, Pinky has no identity, in her innocence and childlikeness, and is looking for one—the coma turns her into the person she wishes to become, and the transition at the same time frees her wild, promiscuous side.
4/ I’ve also come across an interpretation of 3 Women as an allegory of mother-daughter relationship:
“Millie is introduced as a bit directionless, always trying to fit in, but never garnering the attention, respect or love she longs for. He coworkers ignore her rants, her neighbors dismiss her, and her former roommate blows her off. But along comes Pinky, strangely childlike considering her apparent age. She is simply the daughter that enters this lonely woman's life. Not literally, but none-the-less, the relationship proceeds this way. Millie is suddenly the center of her new daughter's universe. We see Millie blush at the attention and adoration she has never received. Like any mother, Millie is constantly guiding and teaching Pinky the proper protocol for every situation - from what to wear, daily routine, entertaining guests--and Pinky absorbs it like a sponge. For many of us who love the film, there has always been something very relatable about the way they connect, even if it's hard to put your finger on.I’m generally not a fan of symbolism and allegories, but that is an interesting take on the film, with strong arguments.
But the dynamics shift when Pinky goes through a symbolic puberty (jumping into the pool). Not coincidentally, this shift is set off by Millie's betrayal of the 3rd woman (Willie, symbolically the grandmother in some respects). After coming out of a coma, Pinky is suddenly a sexual being. Watching how Millie reacts to the new Pinky is quite illuminating, considering that most parents experience this surreal process during their life. The mother has to watch her daughter blossom and have it rubbed in her face that she is past her own sexual prime (this is dramatized by the way neighbor Tom gives Pinky the attention Millie never was able to get). The Mother has to see her own bad habits and traits reflected back via her daughter's behavior (Pinky's new smoking habit and garish use of makeup). And most painfully, the mother falls of her perch as center of her daughter's universe. For those of us who appreciate the film, this is the real heart of the watching Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek go through the surreal turns of this story. It is something absolutely universal. Something our parents silently went through as we became new creatures in our blossoming adolescence.
By not presenting Millie and Pinky as literal mother and child, Altman may alienate some less-discerning viewers. But what he achieves is worth it: He presents how surreal and alienating these parts of the parenting process are. It's a mysterious shift in balance of power, in focus of affection, in bond, and it ultimately leads to a disturbing realization... something that can't be expressed in a self-help book or a parenting manual, but it's hauntingly expressed in the still-birth sequence at the end.”
5/ Rewatching 3 Women, I now notice the bit about Pinky’s white underwear, and wonder what it means. White underwear is innocence, but what does it mean that she washes it and hangs it? We see it in 3 shots, the detail can’t be random, just like the murals.
6/ The murals are Willie’s release, her way of coping with a bastard of a husband. She is silent—painting the beasts on the floor and in empty swimming pools is her means of communication, her form of therapy. Other than her cries for help after Pinky’s suicide attempt, it’s only after Edgar is dead that Willie really speaks.
7/ This time, 3 Women feels more unreal.
I know, the plot is unrealistic and like a dream, but what I mean is that it feels unreal, long before the swap of identities. In many of the scenes at the start, of Millie chattering, Pinky admiringly and obsessively watching, and others ignoring, Millie’s voice rises above everything else as though she’s the only one speaking in a world of silence. It is most distracting, even alienating, in the scene at the hospital canteen, in which Millie’s voice is the only voice we can hear, no matter where we are in the scene—the only clear voice against the ambience, even when we are watching Pinky getting food, where she shouldn’t be able to hear Millie, and the film is largely from Pinky’s perspective.
Is it unreal, or surreal?