Sunday, October 4, 2009

Quintet (1979)

Robert Altman's Quintet is a film totally enveloped in a frozen wasteland that is like an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet for the eyes and the imagination. The wasteland is a blindingly white, snowy tundra that stretches in two directions: in the South, there used to be seals to hunt, but no longer; and in the North, well... nobody knows. And in between are the last remaining people on Earth, stranded in their own hellish limbo, with nothing left to live for in life other than to enact violence against each other because of the consequences of a simple board game. This is a survival of the fittest story, set in a futuristic ice age. In short, this is my kind of movie.

Quintet is the third installment in Altman's unofficial "surrealist" trilogy of the 1970's, a trilogy that began with Images (1972) and reached its peak with the incomparable 3 Women (1977). All three films are ghoulish minions spawned from Altman's rarely-seen dark side: with Images, he took a stab at the horror genre; with 3 Women, he redefined the meaning of uncertainty; and Quintet, lastly, was his interpretation of science fiction. If there are any noticeable differences, let it be said that the previous two films were about the psychological troubles experienced by women- wheras in Quintet, it is the men who spiral down into Freudian madness. But Quintet, like Images and 3 Women, was a box-office disaster, and there have even been (unconfirmed) stories of theaters promising moviegoers their money back in case they couldn't sit through the first 20 minutes. Why? Maybe the theater chains themselves considered the film to be one giant bore. Not one American soul could figure out what Altman was getting at with the film. At least with Images and 3 Women, the perplexity of the plot twists seemed intentional; Quintet was attacked by critics and audiences as confusing for all the wrong reasons.

Altman had a method for determining which of his films needed extra support. He knew that alongside those heavily lauded American multicharacter epics, there were other, more underrated films from his career that had somehow fallen off the face of the planet. They needed someone to lean on. Sometimes fans would go up to Altman and ask him which of his films were his favorite. He would answer them by, first, asking the fans which films of his they had liked the least. A couple of fans were reported to have mumbled, "Well, I didn't understand this Quintet thing...", to which Altman would snap his finger and point: "That's my favorite movie."

The film's screenplay by Altman, Frank Barhydt and Patricia Resnick is one that I would have happily directed myself had I been in Altman's shoes. Some charge that the film is too slow-paced, which may account for the accusations of supposed boredom; you could have fooled me, then, because I find that the film moves like a streak. In fact, I had to watch Quintet twice in order to fully comprehend the experience, and I ended up both enjoying and admiring the film even more on a second viewing. Maybe the popular opinion of disappointment with the film stems from the hard-pressed challenge of having to look at Altman tackle a genre like science fiction. The material is not unlike that of Richard Matheson, so it's possible that those who don't understand the goofy delight of a gritty Matheson story won't buy into Altman's approach. "The thrill is just the magic of it- of making somebody sit in their chair for two hours and be interested or curious", Altman explains in the Making Of documentary now available on the film's DVD, although he admits that the film didn't provide the sort of experience that can be easily digested by audiences. "When we did it," he said, "nobody knew what it was."

Altman bookends his film with shots of the tundra landscape. He begins Quintet with nothing but a white screen, tracking the camera alongside a lengthy barrier until we can just barely make out two blurry gray figures up ahead; and he ends the film with a long take depicting a single figure walking off into the far distance- off into nothing- disappearing into the blizzard. The beginning and ending of Quintet are the film's polar ice caps. Everything sandwiched inside is the last remaining ounce of civilization. The structure of the film is made to resemble that of the world.

The Earth seen in Quintet is suffering from reverse global warming. In these dark ages, children are never born, and the dead become buzzard food for stray dogs. Trailing out from the mist is Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter with no aspirations and no future. In tow is his young wife, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the daughter of one of Essex' late hunting partners. She is the last pregnant woman alive, in a society where the women long so much for children that they begin acting like children themselves. Vivia, for example, has all the energy of a seven-year old. When she and Essex reach the sector where Essex' brother Francha (Tom Hill) currently resides, Vivia dashes from place to place, watching with a juvenile curiosity as others play the board game of Quintet. She is a thumbsucker. She throws tantrums: "I'm so tired of walking! I'm hungry!" In the sector's Information Room, she plays a sneak attack on Essex, and he refuses to go along with the joke: "Don't run off like that", he grumbles.

Tragedy strikes when Vivia and Francha are both killed in a freak explosion. Essex notices a gambler fleeing from the scene, and angrily chases after him. This is Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), whose escape is short-lived; in the Information Room, Essex witnesses Redstone's sudden murder by another gambler, the Latin-speaking Christian fundamentalist St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). Finding a piece of paper in Redstone's coat pocket, Essex realizes that it is actually a list of marked gamblers currently participating in a deadly Quintet tournament in another sector. Deciding to take matters into his own hands and get to the bottom of the mystery, Essex follows Redstone's old trail all the way to an inn known as the Hotel Electra. It is here that Essex will assume Redstone's identity and journey into the Quintet underworld.

The Hotel Electra is populated by several colorful characters. The downstairs Quintet casino is run by the dealer Grigor (Fernando Rey), who warmly invites Essex into the tournaments even when secretly being aware that Essex is not the real Redstone. He gives Essex lectures on why Quintet is such an important economical factor in society: "The only intelligent expression left is the game of Quintet. All the elements of life are contained in it. Our art, our philosophy. All things of value fit the game. The game is the only thing of value". Was Altman a fan of Friedkin's The French Connection (1971)? Those who remember that film will recall that Rey played the narcotics king who eludes Popeye Doyle's grasp; the decision to cast Rey in Quintet could not have been a mere coincidence because Altman had previously cast another French Connection actor, Marcel Bozzuffi, in Images (he played one of Susannah York's ghostly tormentors). In both films, Altman thankfully makes Bozzuffi and Rey out to be more than just the stereotypical French cartoons that they were in Friedkin's film.

But at least Rey's Grigor in Quintet backs off from becoming a potential threat to Essex; the same cannot be said for St. Christopher, whom Essex finds preaching in the local charity house. Here, he gives the kind of pessimistic sermons that Jonathan Edwards wouldn't have dreamed of: "You must cherish your tortured life", he chants, "because it is a pause, an interruption of the void preceding AND following it!" St. Christopher is a dangerous, overzealous man, and he would sooner scare the charity house's inhabitants than he would help them. He is also, it is reported, the deadliest Quintet player alive.

Essex has better luck making friends with Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), whose preference is to play "the sixth man" in the Quintet tournaments, meaning that she always gets to play the winner. She usually wins, but explains to Essex that the downside of playing the sixth man is that there is never anybody else left to play. Andersson seems to have the most fun out of all the actors in the film. When she lets down her red hair and downs a pair of pink pajamas at one point, she looks as sexy as ever; most of the time, however, she's dressed in an over-the-top winter wardrobe that truly catches the eye. You can imagine Ingmar Bergman watching Quintet and wondering where in the hell Andersson must have gotten than ridiculously oversized hat.

Then there is the matter of the game of Quintet itself. How do you play it, exactly? The rules don't make much sense when they are featured in the film. I'm not so sure we're really supposed to understand the rules, anyway; the game of Quintet is really just a MacGuffin, a plot device to help fuel the film's Darwinian thriller elements. The point is that these characters have become so obsessed with the idea of "killing" each other while playing the board game that they are beginning to raise the stakes by playing a reality-based game of cutthroat outside the casino. "Tell me- do I misunderstand the word, 'killing'?" Essex asks Ambrosia. "Not if you understand Quintet", she replies. As if that explains anything.

The female characters have all, understandably, been ruined by this poisonous underworld. When Essex locates the deceased Redstone's apartment, he finds Redstone's wife (Monique Mercure) inside, burning her hand over an oven. When Ambrosia realizes that she may be the next real-life victim in the Quintet tournament, she pleads for Essex to spend the night with her; rather than have sex, they instead literally sleep in bed with each other- and then Ambrosia begins sucking her thumb, just as we had seen Vivia doing earlier. The thumbsucking is further proof that, in the world of Quintet, women find the absence of children so unbearable that only by behaving like children will they cope with the pain of loss. In some ways it also distracts the females who take part in the Quintet tournaments. There is a scene where Ambrosia and the hotel's landlord, Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), end up in the same room behind closed doors; logically, because they are both on the killing list, they should be seizing this as an opportunity to try to kill one another, but instead they make a pact to unite against the male players together. That is, until they are the only two players left in the tournament.

The men act like children, too. What else is Quintet but a pointless game of cops and robbers? Imbeciles like Goldstar (David Langton) don't last long because their temper overclouds their common sense. And when Essex is eventually forced to face off against St. Christopher out in the snow, they fail to make good on the promise of really duking it out- the duel ends with a pathetic thud. It foreshadows, actually, another duel in one of Altman's later films: the hurricane brawl between Kenneth Branaugh and Tom Berenger in the trashy neo-noir flick The Gingerbread Man (1998). That was another film in which Altman portrayed male violence as a moronic waste of time.

Quintet is often criticized because the characters are not three-dimensional. Nor should they be, in my opinion. When humanity has been so utterly driven to the ends of the Earth in the way that it has been in this film, it is only natural that the characters will begin to adopt a very dehumanized, very Kubrickian state of mind. Some might argue that this affects the quality of the performances, but I would beg to differ. As Essex, Paul Newman is given the standard Harrison Ford role, which requires him to be stoic most of the time; because of this, we have the pleasure of studying Newman's facial expressions over listening to the delivery of his lines, and in the process it results in a Newman performance that feels so different from his past work.

Others complain that Quintet has none of Altman's signature overlapping dialogue. This is true, but then again Altman didn't employ overlapping dialogue in Images or 3 Women, either. In surrealist Altman, characters wait for each other to finish speaking, and this is because Altman is not so much interested in realism as he is interested in expanding the films visually. To be sure, Quintet does contain one scene of overlapping dialogue- it is the scene where Grigor tries to talk over a drunken Essex, who keeps on mumbling about the fate of the planet's goose. They're headed North. Grigor pretends not to understand.

Aside from that, what a great-looking movie this is. The art direction by Wolf Kroeger truly maps out the beauty of the tundra, and the production design by Leon Ericksen presents us with a stupefying array of buildings frozen over. The lights in the apartment rooms are growing icicles. The lamps are emanating dry ice. The outside staircases are sometimes dangerously iced over; Stephen Altman claims to have broken his foot slipping on the stairs during production. Altman himself takes advantage of the shadowy production design by squeezing in his directorial secret weapon: the zoom effect, which is plugged into the film during various moments of surprise- from Redstone's murder to Ambrosia spying on Essex as he ascends an indoor staircase. Then there is the chilling musical score by Tom Pierson, which is just as eerie and magical as the score composed by Jerry Goldsmith for Alien, released the same year. I dare anyone to watch Quintet and then tell me that they didn't feel as if they were really there, out in the tundra.

I know exactly why Altman defended Quintet as much as he did. Like me, he was fascinated by the mythology of the film--by the maniacal madness of this strange little board game that he created. Is that so uncommon? Every artist takes some sort of morbid delight in creating a universe in which characters kill for the littlest things. Quintet involves a universe in which the only thing left to live for is the game.

But Essex does not give in. He leaves the people of Hotel Electra to die in whatever way they please, and journeys up North to accept whatever fate has in store for him. Altman closes Quintet with a long, long shot of Essex disappearing into the Northern distance, reminding us of the last shot in Truffaut's Missippi Mermaid, or maybe even the last shot of Visconti's The Leopard. Essex keeps walking on and on, until we can see him no more--until the Northern distance swallows him whole, and we feel as though we have been swallowed up along with him. What a glorious movie.


  1. yet another film that i've read alot about - but never got around to watching. i need to catch up on alot of altman. but i find that his work is exponentially more effective on a big screen than on video. i didn't appreciate mccabe and mrs miller or california split until i saw them in restored prints at revival houses.

  2. Chris, I unfortunately have never even seen any of Altman's work on the big screen! I regret neglecting to catch A Prairie Home Companion in theaters back in 2006- that was my last shot at catching an Altman release while it was still fresh in theaters. But I went to see Pixar's Cars that day instead. Unwise.

    Quintet, as I learned, is not an easy film to locate on DVD; and I had to break it off from an Altman boxset that was for rent on Blockbuster. Nevertheless, it is a terrific film. I don't understand why it is so universally disliked among Altman fans. I even prefer it to M*A*S*H.

  3. I'll have to seek out Quintet. I saw a screening of Praire Home Companion with Garrison Keillor in attendance. I'm actually not of fan of Keillor at all & his aspects of the movie were my least favorite. I keep thinking of the Simpsons' parody of Keillor where you see an obvious lookalike drily reciting lines from one of his books on tv & Homer runs up to the tv set and hits it saying "Be funnier!"
    I was fortunate to work on the marketing of one of my fave late Altman films - Gosford Park. I remember reading Julian Fellowes script and liking it alot - and then finding the finished product even more impressive due to Altman's touches. That was the year Ron Howard won best director over both Altman and David Lynch - both of whom directed masterpieces that year (Lynch's being Mulholland Drive). I suppose the great ones can take comfort in knowing that they create great art.

  4. It's nice to see someone defend this overlooked and maligned Altman, even though I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "masterpiece" myself. But it's undoubtedly a fascinating film, even if it is as torturously slow as its detractors claim. For my part, I find its slowness almost hypnotic, working in concert with the Vaseline-glazed images to give the film a weird, disconnected vibe, like all the characters have ice in their joints, or like sleepwalking through a nightmare landscape. It's gorgeous, and haunting, and a few years after I last saw it, its icy-blue snowbound vistas and weirdly shabby sci-fi interiors have stuck with me even as I've forgotten most of the particulars of the plot.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks on Quintet. Somehow, it is one of my favorite movies. I have posted a bit on the film here, including the actual "rules of the game":


  6. Danny, I'm floored that you did that much research on the film! The interview with Altman at the end is especially helpful. Thanks.

  7. I just remembered this film again a few weeks ago, but could remember little about it. Many thanks for the review. This has brought it all flooding back.


  8. update:


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