Quintet: Robert Altman’s dystopian nightmare from 1979
Altman’s third masterpiece of the 70s, Quintet is a visually and sonically spectacular study of a world in its final throes of death, both spiritual and physical. Requiring multiple viewings to fully appreciate, even a first-time viewer will languish in the unparalleled cinematic splendor of a darkening frozen world where life has lost all meaning. Unbelievably, Quintet was released the same year as Tarkovsky’s Stalker, making 1979 one of the greatest years ever in cinematic history.
Quintet: the plot
(reprinted from Altman On Altman, David Thompson, editor):
With the planet overwhelmed by a new ice age, and finding no more seals to hunt, Essex returns with his pregnant partner Vivia to the city he left ten years before. Outside, dogs feed on the carcases of the old and sick [sic]; inside, the population are absorbed by a board game called Quintet in which the object is to kill one's opponents. Essex's brother Francha takes him to a game which is interrupted by a deadly bomb blast. Essex survives and hunts down the man responsible, Redstone, only to find someone has already killed him. In the pockets of the corpse are the Quintet tokens belonging to Francha and a list of six names — Redstone, Francha, Deuca, Goldstar, St Christopher and Ambrosia. Assumed to be Redstone, Essex visits the Hotel Electra and finds a game in progress but being played for real. Goldstar and Deuca are the next victims, and in spite of Essex's protestations, Ambrosia refuses to give up her role as 'sixth man', the person who arranges the killing order in the game. She in turn fails to dissuade St Christopher from trying to kill Essex, who ignores her warnings. But St Christopher dies in a natural disaster, and Essex kills Ambrosia before she can make her move. In spite of Grigor suggesting that he might make a great player, Essex leaves the city, following the trail of wild geese.
Quintet: the mise en scène
essay coming someday...
Quintet: the lobby cards
Quintet: the publicity folder
Quintet: the stills
Essex and Vivia taking shelter just before reaching the city.
The frozen train.
Entering the city.
Essex and Vivia arriving at the city. Scott Bushnell's wardrobe ideas were absolutely spectacular.
Vivia, entranced by urban life.
Quintet, best played with a little boocha/booza in your system.
Essex carrying the slain Vivia to the water. Quintet's most moving scene.
St. Christopher questions Essex at the city information center ("It doesn't transmit, but the information is still there"). The two scenes at the information center are among the most stirringly beautiful in cinematic history. No shit.
Playing Quintet at the Hotel Electra.
Deuca: "Weak roll, Redstone. You'll never make Sixth Man like that."
Grigor entering Essex's room at the Hotel Electra: "I'm afraid I've been playing 'The Sixth Man' with you."
Grigor and St. Christopher, contemplating the intent of Redstone's imposter.
The dogs, looking for a nice bite.
"Hmm, maybe I shoulda stayed down south after all."
A little down-time at the Hotel Electra.
Essex 'round Ambrosia's crib.
A suspicious Grigor.
Essex showing St. Christopher the killing order: "Your name's on the list". "Tell me something I don't know!" St. Christopher no doubt thinks.
St. Christopher and Essex continuing their little tête-à-tête.
Ambrosia, waking from the dream of her mother.
St. Christopher sermoning the downtrodden at his charity house.
St. Christopher ready for the kill.
"I've won. What's the prize?"
Quintet: the soundtrack
The soundtrack of Quintet provides a rich tapestry of aural images that greatly enhances the awful bleakness of a world in its final throes of death, exploiting a broad range of the sound spectrum.
The highs are punctuated by the intermittent tinkling of glass, evocative of the crystallized snow and ice that cover this frozen world. We hear this especially in the main casino as we hover around the wholly incongruous glass chandelier that hangs above the set. Indeed, the chandelier could easily be mistaken for icicles when we see it for the first time, before it comes into focus. We also hear high squeaks and creaks as Essex searches the city directory, the cracked ice-like glass panes that swivel on rusted metal piping again evoke ice and cold.
In the midrange, footsteps during the deathly quiet chase scenes are often accompanied by the muffled crunch of packed snow underfoot, so evocative of a frozen winter setting bathed in a quilting silence. Somehow, the role of the Quintet dice onto the wood or fabric playing board seems to enhance this effect: the role of dice--which may mean life or death for the players--has never sounded so bleak and helpless as in the world of Quintet.
We finally come to the lower frequencies: the aching, rolling groans of the glacial ice are constant reminders that this is a world in its final stages.
Mention should also be made of the wild dogs feeding on the abandoned dead, the awful sounds of human flesh being shredded, and tooth-on-bone, along with the low growl of the savage beasts, can only be described as horrific.
Quintet: the score
By my Uncle Paul:
Rarely does one encounter a movie score that can stand alone as a substantive composition, yet also be so finely wedded to the cinematic material. The remarkably talented Tom Pierson accomplishes both, however, in his score to Quintet, which uses off-kilter orchestral effects freely, that contribute to the icy, eerie, and brooding mood of this film. Minimalism, at times reminiscent of Philip Glass, nevertheless contains enough surprises and variation to sustain interest. Composed largely in quintuple meter, and sometimes with pentatonic scaling, Pierson thus not merely remains faithful to the title of the film, but keeps the listener off balance, consistent with the mystery and uncertainty that abounds in Quintet's story line. Dialogue is sparse in Quintet, and without Pierson's brilliant hour-long symphony of howling wind, drums, horn, and sundry other instruments and devices, Altman's film could not stand among the better mood movies of the era.
Quintet Music by Tom Pierson:
Quintet: the reception
Quintet endured an awful reception upon its release, and the few who actually saw it in 1979 basically ran away from it as quickly as they could. It was, by most accounts, a hopelessly boring, muddled, pretentious, mess of a movie, with Altman’s tricks of muddy sound and muddy lenses (or in this case, heavily "O"-filtered lenses, as if we’re peering through an iced window) in evidence to the hilt. It was an embarrassment to all but Altman himself, it seemed.
Altman Offers Apocalyptic Fantasy: End Game
February 9, 1979
ROBERT ALTMAN'S "Quintet," which opens today at the Embassy, Beekman and Paramount Theaters, is, I suspect, exactly the movie that this very talented, wildly erratic director wanted to make — an apocalyptic fantasy about the end of the world, set in a new ice age that will follow the last great war when the earth has been thrown off its axis.
The landscape is snow-covered, frozen. Almost all wild-life has vanished. Women, like the landscape, are barren. They no longer conceive. Packs of dogs gnaw on the bodies of those who have died of cold and malnutrition. No one pays much attention.
The main pasttime in this lost world is a game called quintet, which is played with five players and looks sort of like a primitive backgammon, though it also involves its players in bouts of hide-and-seek in which one player must murder another. Although we're never told the rules of the game, it appears to be no more complicated than Old Maid played with death penalties.
The city where the survivors live and play looks as if it might once have been Kennedy Airport, before the big blast. One particular apartment block suggests the Trans World Airlines terminal reduced to its principal structural components. The walls have collapsed. Stairways are escalators that no longer move.
As you might suspect, "Quintet" is an art director's field day, though the sets sometimes make even less sense than the screenplay. The casino where citizens come to play quintet is part Alaskan cave, part Museum of Modern Art, photography gallery, the walls hung with large photo murals of the depressed and dispossessed of an earlier (our) era. Because we can make anything of this we want, the movie functions mostly as an animated Rorschach test.
At its least boring, "Quintet" has a dream-like quality that is very soothing even when the movie means to be stern and scarifying, if only because nothing seems to be very important. Like its characters, "Quintet" is passionless, to such a degree that when one person stalks another with murder in mind, there is absolutely no suspense. Such total apathy is not easily attained without the help of chemicals.
At its worst, which is most of the time, "Quintet" discovers a lot of small ideas that sound as if they'd been borrowed from "Tomorrow," the shrilly dreadful song from "Annie" that reveals there's always another day.
Some excellent actors move through the movie looking chilled to the bone, like guests at the end of a costume ball when the heat has been turned off. They include Paul Newman, a Life-Force character who refuses to be defeated by the game of quintet; Fernando Rey, the grand adjudicator who supervises the games and seems to have come to the party dressed as Christopher Colombus; Vittorio Gassman, who plays a character named St. Christopher but looks like Marco Polo; Bibi Andersson, a woman named Ambrosia who says such things as "Death is always arbitrary. At least, that's been the principal complaint," and Nina Van Pallandt, a quintet player who appears to have lost her luggage while touring the North Pole. Brigitte Fossey appears briefly as what some writers might call a child-woman, meaning in this case that she sucks her thumb as she drifts into sleep.
All great directors must be arrogant to the extent that they will follow their dreams through to the bitter, sometimes banal end. This time Mr. Altman's faith in himself has led him over the brink he was skirting in "Three Women." It's not a movie for his admirers but for members of his entourage.
THE CURRENT CINEMA
The Altman Bunker
February 26, 1979
ALLEGORICAL poetic films never do work. Worse, they're somehow all the same, and yet many directors seem to have one in them, and they struggle for years until they raise the money to realize their vision. When they finally get to it, they seem to forget most of what they knew about movies and all of what goes tinder the heading of common sense. Art empties their minds. The peculiarity of Robert Altman's "Quintet," which is set in the future, in a new ice age, is that it's not his first allegorical poetic. He was already into his Jungian phase in the Janice Rule section of "3 Women" (and there were yearnings for the abyss in both "Brewster McCloud" and "Images"). When Altman enters this phase, he goes into his own fugal version of dreamtime, which means, in practice, that he puts the audience in such a depressed state that people are fighting to stay awake even before the titles come on. I'm not quite sure how this effect is achieved, but electronic sounds and a lot of white on the screen may he part of the secret. It also helps to have the camera travel with one person trudging along in the snow, offering views of nothingness for our admiration. You get a sense of eternity fast.
"Quintet" seems to be shot through a hole in the ice—the perimeter of the frame has been blurred. This iris shape adds to the delicate dreaminess of some of the snow imagery, but also adds to the monotony of the clammy, greenish interiors. In this post-apocalypse age, the scattered survivors of a highly technological society live without hope in decaying, vandalized structures that suggest public housing designed by a drunken spider. The interiors were shot in the remnants of Expo 67 in Montreal, with the "Man and His World" photo-murals still visible—a black child and his mother, and other faces from the past. (These murals enrich the visual texture in an accusatory way; we're made to feel vaguely guilty.) To alleviate the boredom of survival, the last men and women play a death game called Quintet, which appears to be an elaborate form of Arctic roulette. (You wouldn't think that survival in subfreezing cold would be so easy that people would be bored, but let it pass.)
The corpses of the losers are tossed outside into the frozen waste, to be devoured by packs of Rottweilers. Sleek and black against the snow, these Rottweilers are a death image—vultures, Only more so.
The game of Quintet has, as anyone who has ever seen an allegorical poetic will expect, more than one metaphoric meaning. It is the game of life—life being, as one of the players, who is named St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), explains, the interruption in the void. And Grigor (Fernando Rey), the adjudicator, explains the game's excitement: the rush of adrenalin after you've killed is what tells you you're alive. (It helps you keep your sanity at this point to think of "Quintet" as a Mickey Spillane movie set in the far future: this place is a jungle. Or you can try thinking of it as an ice-age Sicily.)
There's also a metaphoric meaning signified by the caption that is lettered across Paul Newman's solemn headgear in the ads for the picture: "One man against the world." Newman plays Essex the seal hunter, who appears to he the last potent man left. At the beginning, he and his fresh-faced pregnant companion, Vivia (the French actress Brigitte Fossey), arrive at the ruins where the game is being played.
The other, older women touch her stomach, wonderingly: she is probably the only woman alive who can stal bear a child. Brigitte Fossey is lovely, and she's one of the few performers in the movie whose accents don't cripple them; this is her first English-speaking role, and she's enchanting. So, of course, Vivia is killed almost at once. After she's gone, we have nothing at stake. The noble Essex, in despair, hangs around and plays the game for a while; he's a winner, and he's also gracious enough to go to bed with Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), This provides a brief respite from the script's enigmatic, fuzzily epigrammatic discourse. Throughout the film, people talk in semi-abstract generalizations, but Ambrosia is permitted a monologue about a dream she had of her mother in a green hat on a train, when there were still trains. Bibi Andersson does wonders with it: for a minute, we have the illusion of being involved in a movie. Eventually, Essex wearies of the uglygame and leaves, heading north, Why north? Well, the North Pole is the top of the world, and Newman appears to be a mythologized version of Robert Altman the moviemaker. In "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," Newman was the showman aspect of Altman, and here he is the man who leaves other people (the studio people?) playing their rotten games and heads off into the unknown. Essex is the life force, the humane man in an inhumane world—in fact, everything an artist should never think of himself as.
In case critics don't know that they're not fit to have opinions of the movies made by northward-bound heroes, Altman and his team of writers give us Grigor, that adjudicator who wants the rush of adrenalin he gets from Idling. Actually, critics may get a rush of misery from watching Fernando Rey, a great actor in French and Spanish-speaking roles, work his mouth around words like "adrenalin" and overact so much that he seems a fool. Altman's magic now seems to be used up on the set, in convincing the actors that they're part of something great, masterly, They have the fun, and we got "Quintet."
This picture enlisted the help of the cinematographer Jean Boffety and the designer Leon Ericksen, but to no great avail. The bombed-out decor, with its partitions and girders and dripping icicles, has zigzag effects reminiscent of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," and it bisects what's left of the frame after the edges have been blurred. You feel cramped; you have to squint your eyes as well as your mind. In a number of scenes, the actors lurk about like the conspirators in Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible." Tom Pierson's ominous, dissonant score, which has the incantatory quality of medieval music, gives the film some lift, though it sounds too spacious for the cubbyholes of this futuristic flophouse. It also recalls the pealing and clanging of the hells in the "Ivan" score. "Quintet" might be "Ivan the Terrible, Part III"—the film no one was waiting for.
Altman has reached the point of wearing his failures like medals. He's creating a mystique of heroism out of emptied theatres. (A woman near me who thought she had lost a glove moaned, "A double disaster.") He's giving weight to scenes that he would have treated as comedy skits only a few years ago—like the comics who have had their gags explained to them by academics. There's a dialogue scene played by two people who are sitting on
either side of a loser in the game (Nina Van Pallandt) who has been skewered to death. You can't listen to a word they're saying: you're watching to see if she blinks, In another scene, a woman (Monique Mercure) widowed by the game holds her hand over a fire until it is charred and bursts. (Did Altman run out of marshmallows? ) Actors in medieval and Renaissance hats sit around swathed in pyramidal layers of cloth and fur arguing in assorted European accents about some game we don't understand. And with dialogue such as the diabolical Gassman's "Hope is an obsolete word," contrasted with the inspirational music as Newman presses on northward, it's like a Monty Python show played at the wrong speed.
Quintet: the legacy
(This is a major stretch, but I am posting it, if only to be provocative...)
Given its awful reception, there were unlikely to be many conscious decisions to emulate the look, the feel, or anything else of Quintet. Nonetheless, emulators there have been...
...Paul Thomas Anderson could not hide his adulation of Altman if he tried (and to his genuine credit, he doesn’t). While Magnolia rubs shoulders intimately with Short Cuts (both are ensemble epics consisting of interlocking stories about modern Angelenos--somewhat like both Grand Canyon and the far inferior Crash), his excellent There Will Be Blood (2007) initially seems to be a departure for Anderson, in which he finally comes out from under Altman’s wings to emerge as a genuine original. Yet as original as the film is, the Altman influence is still very much present, albeit in subtle and surprising ways. Strange as it may seem, There Will be Blood may be viewed as Anderson’s Quintet.
Both films have protagonists seeking a livelihood amidst inhospitable natural elements: Essex, seals from below the ice, and Daniel, oil from below the earth. Too, both protagonists find meaning and solace in the one they love: the pregnant Vivia, and the orphan H.W. provide a ray of hope for their respective worlds’ brighter future. As each protagonist leaves his wilderness origins for an inhabited settlement, his loved ones—their only real hopes—are suddenly lost to explosions, events which harden each of them forever (unlike Vivia, H.W. doesn’t die, but for Plainview, a hopelessly limited man, he is as good as dead, and is ultimately shipped away). Both also find that nature is no longer their primary adversary. Instead, returning to civilization, it is religion, or rather, an individual who exploits religion to his own twisted ends (okay, well, yes, religion). In Quintet we have St. Christopher the mystic, and Grigor, who ensures that the city’s inhabitants play by the rules of Quintet, even—or especially—to their deaths. The parallels to Christianity (perhaps in particular to Altman’s own reviled Catholicism) are striking (and strikingly obvious). In There Will Be Blood we have the preacher Eli. In both stories, the religious charlatans remain the protagonists’ adversaries until the last frames of the movies. In the end, each adversary leaves his settlement—his fiefdom—behind, to seek out the protagonist on his own turf (the ice, the sequestered mansion), and each meets his demise there. Meanwhile, Essex and Daniel hardly emerge victorious. They are broken men, and each retreats completely and presumably permanently into his own embittered isolation.
Quintet: the credits
Lion's Gate Films for 20th Century Fox
Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman, Patricia Resnick, from a story by Robert Altman, Lionel Chetwynd, Patricia Resnick
Dennis M. Hill
Paul Newman (Essex)
Vittorio Gassman (St Christopher)
Fernando Rey (Grigor)
Bibi Andersson (Ambrosia)
Brigitte Fossey (Vivia)
Nina Van Pallandt (Deuca)
David Langton (Goldstar)
Tom Hill (Francha)
Monique Mercure (Redstone's Mate)
Craig Richard Nelson (Redstone)
Maruska Stankova (Jaspera)
Anne Gerety (Aeon)
Michel Maillot (Obelus)
Max Fleck (Wood Supplier)
Francoise Berd (Charity House Woman)
Quintet: the game
The game of QUINTET (reprinted from Altman On Altman, David Thompson, editor):
Object of game:
To be the last player left on the board after all your opponent's tokens have been captured.
Gameboard, 2 dice and 15 playing tokens, 3 x 5 kinds.
Background of the game:
Quintet is a game of survival. The five sectors of the Quintet board reflect the five sectors of inhabitants in a futuristic civilization portrayed in Quintet. The film is set in a time of advanced technology within a city
founded entirely upon the concept of five: five sectors, five levels in each sector, a population of five million.
As in the film, each player participates with a distinctive token: Redstone (Paul Newman), the mushroom-shaped token; Grigor (Fernando Rey), the starfish; Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), the scalloped cross; Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), the red amulet; and Deuca (Nina van Pallandt), the ice crystal.
Because the Quintet players in the film exist at a time in the future the earth and its inhabitants are near total devastation from a new ice age,
they live in constant presence of death. People all around them are freezing
to death every day, and it is just a matter of time before death will strike each one of them. So why wait passively for death to strike? The Quintet player lives to challenge and taunt death.
In the film Quintet, the most daring of the players expand their board game rivalry to compete with each other at a level of reality: the game's capturing order becomes a real-life killing order. The game becomes so real that in order to win the players must kill or be killed.
In the film, successful Quintet players are forced to look out solely for themselves. They form alliances which are broken when they are no longer self-serving. As the capturing order changes, friendships and loyalties change. All of life, particularly mankind's feelings and motivations for survival, is contained in the game of Quintet. For the true Quintet player, life becomes a game, and the game is all there is to life.
The Quintet game described here is, of course, a non-lethal versionof the one in the film. Nevertheless, the ingredients of intrigue, plotting and deceit remain to make it a thrilling contest for every player. But remember, wIhen you play to cheat death, be prepared for death to cheat you!
Each player sits in front of one of the five sides of the Gameboard and chooses three matching playing Tokens. Each player rolls the dice, and the one who achieves the highest number plays first and decides the Capturing Order. In case of a tie, the first one to roll the highest number plays first.
The first player sets up the Capturing Order by placing one of each player's Tokens in the middle of the Gameboard. These Tokens in the killing circle remain untouched until the matching Tokens are captured and are out of the game. They serve only as visual reminders of the Capturing Order.
The Capturing Order follows the arrows. The player can capture the piece Ahead but in turn can be captured by the piece behind.
ALLIANCE: Alliances happen when two neutral Tokens occupy the same space. Neutral Tokens cannot capture each other, and hence do not immeditely precede or follow each other in the Capturing Order. Alliances protect both players since no other tokens can land on that space and must pass it.
BARRICADE: A Barricade is formed when both of a player's Tokens occupy the same space. No other Token can land on that space or pass it.
SAFETY SPACE: The spaces numbered VI (6) are Safety Spaces. If you roll a six on one diie, you may either move six spaces or enter the nearest Safety space. If you roll double sixes, you may move both Tokens into Safety Spaces, if you still have both Tokens. If you roll six and another number, and you have only one Token left and you wish to move into safety, you must take the other number first.
You can remain in SAFETY as long as you roll a six or you can use the numbers you roll with your other Token.
Let's Play Quintet:
1. ROLLING ON. The high roller rolls again and puts his two remaining Tokens in the correct spaces on his side of the board.
Example: If a player rolls a four on one dice and a three on another, he places one Token on space three (III) directly in front and the other Token on space four (IV). If a player rolls double numbers, he places both Tokens in the same room, setting up a barricade.
This is 'rolling on'. Play continues until all players have 'rolled on'.
2. To continue, the first player rolls again. He may move either piece the
total number shown on the dice. Or he may split up his move and move one Token the number shown on one dice and the other Token number shown on the other dice. MOVES MAY BE TAKEN IN EITHER DIRECTION. When a player rolls double fives, they complete the moves and get an additional turn.
Example: If a player rolls a five and a four, they may move one Token five spaces in one direction and then move the same Token four spaces in the opposite direction, if they wish.
3. There can never be more than two Tokens on any space at any time.
4. During each other player's turn, he tries to capture one or both Tokens of the player directly after him in the capturing circle. NOT NECESSARILY
IN THE ORDER IN WHICH PLAYERS ARE SEATED AROUND THE BOARD. You
capture a Token by landing on that Token's place at the end of the move.
5. Each time a player's Token is captured, the captured piece is removed from the board. After a player loses both pieces, he is out of the game and his Token is removed from the Capturing Circle. IMPORTANT: At this time there is a new capturing order.
6. If a player has only one piece remaining, he must move according to the numbers of both dice with the one piece (see rule 2.).
7. If a correct move lands a player on a space occupied by the Token that is trying to capture you, you are captured and your piece is removed from the board.
8. ALLIANCES can turn into captures! If a new Capturing Order happens and an old neutral piece that is sharing a space with you can now capture you, you are captured.
9. If a player is trapped between two BARRICADES and cannot move the full amount shown on the dice, he must forfeit that move.
10. If a player has a BARRICADE on one side and moving the other direction would make him land on someone who wants to capture him, he is captured!
Getting Out of Safety:
11. Whenever a player has a piece in SAFETY and he wants to move out of SAFETY, he must move out according to the numbers on the dice.
Example: A player has one piece left which is in SAFETY and he rolls five and four. The player must move out of SAFETY to space five or four nearest that SAFETY. He may then take the other number in either direction.
12.. Example: A player has a space in SAFETY and he must move out. If the only correct moves causes him to end his turn on a space occupied by a Token that wants to capture him, he is captured!
13. Example: A player has only one Token left and it is in SAFETY. If that
player rolls a six and a four, he must go to space four on that side before
returning to SAFETY. If space four (IV) is occupied by a Token that
wants to capture him, he is not captured since he did not end his turn on that space.
14. IN THE CASE OF ROLLING DOUBLE SIXES: When a player has two Tokens
and one Token is in SAFETY, one six may be used for that Token to remain in SAFETY. Then the second six is used by the second Token to move six spaces or to go into SAFETY.
When a player has only one remaining Token or both Tokens in
SAFETY, it/they must remain in SAFETY.
Got that? Cool. So let's play...
Simplified version of the rules, from the original publicity materials:
Quintet: the Altman interview
In-Depth interview with Robert Altman about Quintet by James Delson, from Fantastic Films magazine, June 1979:
Quintet: the thoughtful essay I wish I'd written
by John Kenneth Muir
(reprinted by permission of the author)
"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 acooling 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, Quintetultimately 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."
Quintet: the Altmans' NYC Apartment