Friday, April 01, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quintet (1979)

In the year 1979, director Robert Altman (1925-2006) teamed with star Paul Newman (1925-2008) to present one of the bleakest post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinematic visions ever forged, the wintry Quintet. 

Set well into a fictional future ice age of devastating "global cooling," Quintet was not received warmly by either film critics or audiences at the time of the film's theatrical release, and that perception has remained largely unchanged today.  Indeed, Quintet is not an easy or particularly fun film to experience.  The narrative moves at an almost glacial pace and the action features long periods of bracing, uncomfortable silence. 

In addition to these qualities, Altman's feature boasts a kind of overt "icy" visual palette, with out-of-focus "cold" atmosphere encroaching visibly on the four corners of the frame.  This unique, misty canvas is actually an ideal reflection of the film's existential crisis: that mankind is being suffocated spiritually and physically by the re-glaciation of all corners of the planet.

For some viewers, this misty, frost-bitten visual presentation will add immeasurably to the creeping sense of bleakness and claustrophobia Altman toils so assiduously to generate.  For others, the effect may only serve to annoy or even distance one from the action on-screen.

Yet Quintet is a film worthy of patience, one crafted with real dedication, and with seemingly no consideration for commercial interests.  The film is not merely bleak, it is intentionally, irrevocably hopeless.  It goes out of its way, actually, to kill off "hope" in the first act.   With cutthroat efficiency, Quintet depicts a world where the word "friend" has been replaced with the word "alliance," and then goes even further than that.  In most post-apocalyptic movies, there is some opportunity for characters to escape, locate a sanctuary, or carve out at least some slice of small happiness. But without apology or explanation, Quintet asks audiences to countenance a future world in which there is no escape route, and each new day is just one cycle closer to inevitable extinction.

Another way to describe this artistic but difficult genre film: it's an intriguing place to visit, but you certainly would not want to live there.

"I Broke No Rules!"

As Quintet commences, a middle-aged seal hunter, Essex (Newman) and his young companion, the pregnant, innocent Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), make for a northern city, one of the last hubs of human civilization following a global cooling phenomenon that has turned all the Earth to inhospitable ice. 

Essex seeks out his long-estranged brother, Francha (Thomas Hill) inside the ruined city, and learns that he is involved in a "Tournament," a game of Quintet, but with a few interesting and deadly additions. 

In the traditional game of Quintet, five players attempt to move their pieces across a five-sided board and to finish off the other four players, following a "killing order" list.  When four competitors are vanquished, the survivor then must fight "the sixth man," another player who has been waiting the duration of the game in "limbo," the space between the sides.  

This extremely popular board game fits in with a new philosophical view, a quasi-religion that has gained adherents in this post-apocalyptic world without sustenance, without meaningful work, and without purpose.  In particular, the five sides of the Quintet board represent the five stages of life: the pain of birth, the labor of maturing, the guilt of living, the terror of aging, and the finality of death. 

But in the space between these five sides -- in the limbo -- there is a sixth stage of existence.  It is an empty, black void that represents "total madness" and the awareness of a consuming nothingness.  A preacher inside the city, St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman) calls this sixth space the void that both precedes human life and the void that succeeds such life. 

By understanding and accepting this void, he suggests, the people who dwell in this New Ice Age should "cherish the interruption;" cherish the icy misery they face each and every day.  In other words, a slow death in an icy hell is infinitely preferable to the eternity of oblivion that book-ends our existence.  At least in the frozen new Ice Age, man can feel and think and breathe.

When an overly-competitive Quintet player named Redstone  rolls a deadly explosive into Francha's home quarters and murders both Essex's brother and the delightful, youthful, Vivia, Essex realizes that the players in this Quintet tournament have forsaken the niceties of the board.  This is now a game played with real lives, and in the real five sectors of this old, half-destroyed metropolis.  Each of five players (plus a shadowy sixth man...) are attempting to kill each other and thus "win" the tournament.

Angry and confused, Essex joins the game, posing as Redstone.  He checks into the  Hotel Electra and soon meets the referee for the tournament, the flamboyant Grigor (Fernando Rey).  Grigor wishes he could play in the tournament himself rather than merely "interpreting" the rules for the other players.  He sees Essex -- an impostor -- as one fresh way to spice up the tournament, and therefore allows Essex to move freely about, encountering the other "players:" the foolish Goldstar (David Langton), the ambitious Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), and the seemingly helpful, if remote, Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson). 

It is Ambrosia who warns Essex that the most dangerous opponent in the game is actually St. Christopher, a man who runs a religious mission espousing his world view and who believes wholeheartedly in the philosophy of Quintet. 

As the players begin to die -- murdered by one another -- Essex seeks to understand the game even as his very existence is threatened.  He is, perhaps, taken aback when he learns the identity of the invisible "sixth man" in this particular game...

I am not here to help or regard.  I am here to interpret the rules.

The underlying idea for Quintet's post-apocalyptic world arises out of the scientific and media history of the 1970s. 

In the early years of the disco decade, scientists began to become aware of a cooling trend on Earth, one that existed between the years 1945 and 1975, roughly.  Popular news outlets jumped on the idea that a new ice age could be dawning, replete with a re-glaciation of the planet. 

In summer of 1974, TIME magazine featured an article called "Another Ice Age," and worried about a "global climactic upheaval" as the "interglacial period" that had nurtured and nourished mankind for all his history came to an abrupt end.  In 1975, Newsweek followed-up with an equally alarming article called "The Cooling World."  A hot seller at book-vendors in the same era was called The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of a New Ice Age.

Quintet is set in a world where Mother Nature herself has literally turned a cold shoulder to mankind, and our cities, roads, railroads and grassy fields are buried under un-ending layers of frigid ice.  Altman's film opens and closes with exterior views of white-on-white eternity as human figures wander into and out of view, respectively.  The white-on-white opening and closing shots of the film mirror the existentialist, nihilistic philosophy of the Quintet board game: the film's action occurs in the "interlude" between the twin abysses, before-birth, and after-death.

Enhancing the sense of grim, unrelenting hopelessness, Quintet introduces us to the character of Vivia, a charming, child-like girl who approaches every new vista in the half-buried city with a sense of innocent wonder.  Vivia is younger than any other survivor, perhaps the youngest of all the humans left alive on Earth, and she is pregnant.  Her pregnancy -- like her very personhood -- carries our one hope for the future; that mankind can somehow carry on and survive in the face of an enveloping Ice Age.  Even Vivia's name suggests life itself, derived from the Latin verb, vivere, meaning "to live."

When Vivia -- life herself -- is wantonly murdered in Quintet's first act, all hope for a positive future is utterly destroyed.  Essex may survive for a time, but it is not accurate to suggest that he really "lives."  His life becomes devoted to Quintet; towards understanding the brand of death that took away his companion and his child; and the very future itself. 

The murderer, Redstone, who killed both Vivia and her unborn child has no moral response to Essex's pursuit.  After killing a room-ful of innocents as well as his quarry (Francha), Redstone can only offer the worthless, pitiful caveat, "I broke no rules."  If life and death are just part of a game, and murder is part of the rules, then perhaps he's right.

Virtually every character Altman introduces audiences to in Quintet clearly lives with the expectation that the world is coming to an end for the human race.  "Hope is an obsolete word," one character notes truthfully.  Even the film's final punctuation, Grigor's explanation about the "prize" if you win the Quintet Tournament, is woefully grim.  Specifically, there is no cash reward, no cache of food, not even a warm jacket at the end of this game of death. 

No, the winning "prize" to this death game is that you live to fight another day; you survive in a hopeless world for one more cycle, at least.  That's the apotheosis of spirituality that these humans strive to achieve: one more day of misery, alive, before inevitably returning to the abyss of nothingness. 

At the end of the film, Essex pointedly attempts to refute this kind of nihilist thinking, saying he prefers to hope for something better up north.  But even this forced, vocal expression of hope is a sham.  The next shot -- Quintet's final, lingering image -- finds Essex marching away into the white-on-white, snow-covered distance. He eventually disappears, gone in the haze, and the end credits roll.  Essex may believe he has hope; but the abyss nonetheless swallows him in the end; as it swallows everyone.

In depicting a future world where there is as little humanity as there is warmth, Quintet ultimately proves distancing on an emotional level.   Paul Newman plays his character's emotions close-to-the-vest, going for a minimalist approach that denies us any significant level of understanding or sympathy.  We want to watch him fall apart; to mourn with him over the death of the future.  We want to watch him get even; watch him kill his enemies.  But Newman's impressive, balanced performance permits no such easy solace; Essex carries his pain inside.

Even the murder and chase scenes in Quintet lack suspense (as critic Vincent Canby noted in The New York Times), but again, that seems to -- oddly -- fit the film's tenor. This world is so miserable and the character motivations so opaque, that we feel no thrill at either Essex's victory, or at St. Christopher's defeat.  Our blood has run as cold as the landscape.  The chill is so strong that while watching Quintet we begin to lose our capacity to feel for the characters, just as they have lost the capacity to empathize or sympathize with their fellow man.

The most human and affecting moment in Quintet occurs shortly after Vivia's death.  By this point, Altman has staged multiple shots of dog packs eating human corpses, unbothered by the city goers.  The dogs hungrily lick spilled blood out of the ice, and not a single human being attempts to stop the animals from feasting on such remains. 

But the grieving Essex returns to his brother's quarters and takes the corpse of his companion, Vivia (who was also carrying his child) and at great physical labor carries her  body across the vast, open ice plain.  The dog packs nip at his heels the whole way, but  Essex finally reaches a freezing river, and disposes of Vivia's corpse there.  We watch as her body disappears beneath the placid surface, and recognize this is an infinitely preferable end than the one society would otherwise have granted  for her, as -- again literally -- dog food.  And again, we don't see Essex break down or cry, or swear vengeance. 

He just watches the body sink, and moves on.

It's tough -- and yes, uncomfortable -- to buy into a world where human life means so little that the bodies of loved ones are regularly left as food for scavengers, yet Quintet proves impressive on at least an intellectual level, perhaps because of its uncompromising nature.  The bleak film plays in some ways like a bizarre Western, with a stranger arriving in a frontier town and becoming involved in a shoot-out contest, or some such thing, should such a comparison serve to contextualize the film for the wary. 

So it's a challenge to "enjoy" Quintet, but as one character in the film trenchantly notes, "you never understand the scheme until you are part of the scheme."    In other words, if you hunker down and truly commit to Altman's uncompromising vision for Quintet, you may come, in some cerebral fashion at least, to appreciate the terrifying and lonely world he shows you here.


  1. Yeah, this is a tough film to get into and this is coming from someone who adores most of Altman's output. But this I found impenetrable. To be fair, it has been many years since I attempted to watch it so I really should give it another chance.

    Excellent review!

  2. Hi J.D.,

    Thank you for an excellent comment and your kind words about the review.

    I agree with everything you said, actually.

    I also adore Altman, and this film is both tough and impenetrable.

    I tried to penetrate it(!), and had some modest luck; the key for me was in the philosophy of the game Quintet (as spoken by St. Christopher) and then seeing how Altman applied that philosophy to the whole film, visually and thematically.

    There is real artistry here, but Quintent is not a fun movie by any definition of that word.


  3. I think you did an excellent job! There are definitely some Altman films that are challenging. This film, O.C. & STIGGS, and BREWSTER McCLOUD... and a couple others whose names escape me but you get the idea.

  4. I thank you for taking this much-maligned film seriously. This is by far the best writing I have seen on it.

    I am very partial to Altman. He is an artist who never did anything uninteresting.

  5. Hi J.D. and Patrick.

    Thank you for the supportive comments!

    J.D. Thank you for that affirmation. I love Altman's films and wanted to do this one justice, but Quintet doesn't welcome you with open arms. But there is something powerful in it; I really believe. Also love Brewster McCloud

    Patrick: I really appreciate your words as well. I couldn't agree more: Altman never did anything without artistic merit; without interest. Quintet is no exception.

    best to you both,

  6. John,

    A bit late to the party here– I just watched this last night, and though some of my favorite films are incredibly bleak and dreamlike (two qualities that QUINTET certainly has in spades), I can't say that I enjoyed it. But I did respect it.
    Upon googling for reviews, I stumbled upon your appreciation, and I think it might be the best I've read. A passage like "Our blood has run as cold as the landscape. The chill is so strong that while watching Quintet we begin to lose our capacity to feel for the characters, just as they have lost the capacity to empathize or sympathize with their fellow man" goes a long way toward justifying the callous tone and execution, and I think the film does earn its place (however opaque and cold-hearted) in the Altman canon, and is nearly a melancholy-fantasy companion to THREE WOMEN (one of my all-time favorites) .
    All of that being said, I would have been interested in seeing what Walter Hill would have done with the material (which was supposedly Altman's original plan).

  7. Anonymous12:09 PM

    I keep thinking about the goose or duck from the beginning flying north. Although hope was killed in the beginning we don't see the future in the north. After all Paul Newman doesn't know that


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