Quintet is by no means a perfect movie - bad reviews it has garnered since its release in 1979 are legion - but it has something a lot of modern day slick flicks regrettably lack - a unique look and feel. And let me tell you something, once you've entered this dreary, yet vaguely fairytale and dream-like, world you may not find it easy to shake off its haunting visuals.
Review by SAndman
February 4, 2010
Director: Robert Altman
story: Robert Altman, Lionel Chetwynd and Patricia Resnick
screenplay: Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick
Paul Newman as Essex
Vittorio Gassman as Saint Christopher
Bibi Andersson as Ambrosia
Fernando Rey as Grigor
Nina Van Pallandt as Deuca
Grigor: I saw that fire in your eyes. Only tournament players have that sense of life.
It doesn't take long to realize you're watching a post-apocalyptic movie with some existentialist overtones. The plot features a vision of the future in which the world is freezing in interminably - no explanation is given for the condition of the world but presumably we're looking at the nuclear winter - and in this world the only thing that keeps people alive and kicking (well, not exactly kicking, but alive for at least a little while) is a strange board game called quintet.
The main character is an outsider, who goes by name of Essex. He comes back to the city of his birth looking for his brother. He is accompanied by his pregnant wife, Vivia, whom he met in the south where he had lived some time hunting seals with Vivia's father. The two find Essex's brother, who offers them shelter. However, when Essex goes out to look for firewood, somebody sneaks in a bomb and blows up the apartment with Essex's brother, his family, and Essex's wife in it. Essex follows the assassin, and catching up to him, he finds him already dead with his throat slit.
Essex retrieves a list of names among the man's possessions and realizing he's looking at a list of players he enlists in a game played at the local hotel intent on finding out everything about the game that cost his brother his life and caused the death of his wife. He assumes the name of one of the man from the list to play the game in his stead. Soon he discovers the game he's involved in is like no other as it is played for the highest of stakes.
There are few movies which are so consistently pessimistic as Quintet. Entropy feels almost palpable in the movie. We see a mankind which seems to have degenerated into cynics and game-addicts. Everybody in the movie is either dreadfully lethargic or plain callous. Frozen corpses are strewn all over the place and mauled by roaming pack of dogs, yet no one seems to care enough to do give them a proper burial or remove them from the streets.
The only positive character, Vivia, is axed at the very beginning and what we're left with is an elaborate and ultimately futile game of cat and mice between the characters who are neither likable nor graced with any redeeming qualities, including Essex, who is basically motivated by vengeance and seemingly the game's own momentum.
The world of Quintet is irrevocably doomed to death by freezing. And there is absolutely nothing anybody can do about it. Technology is still present in terms of random and defunct machines which outlived their purpose. There is not a glimpse of hope that anybody could make the machines operable again or use them to reduce the general state of misery, or forestall descent into death and oblivion.
Yet as though all this wasn't bad enough, mankind has created a construct world of game so absorbing that the game itself becomes more meaningful to the players than their own hopeless existence. As a matter of fact, the game is elevated to a cult and, as some of the characters in the movie exemplify, it has its fanatical devotees, who are ready to kill, and be killed, in order to keep the game going.
Quintet may not have aged well. There are other more important movies we remember from that decade, after all it was a decade of Alien and Star Wars and many other biggies. Its stylized cinematography was deemed heavy-handed even back in its day as it does today. The use of misted lenses, which makes the impression that we're watching the action as though through a frozen pane, feels especially contrived and ludicrous.
Sadly the power cast of international stars, and their convincing performances, didn't manage to save the movie's reputation. Quintet has been universally lambasted, due in part to script's shortcomings, and in part, and that is where the movie really falls flat on its face, its sluggishly slow pace. You have to respect Altman's effort to capture the lethargy which has the world in the movie in its deadly grip, but the end product just feels unnervingly ponderous.
What remains of Quintet even after all these years is its unique atmosphere and disturbing, absolutely coherent and original vision of the future. Though perhaps today we cannot share in its nuclear war neuroses, some of the issues in the movie, especially the climate change or the highly addictive construct world of the game, still are as pertinent today as they were thirty-odd years ago.
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