Review: Quintet

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Quintet is one of those things that Robert Altman makes from time to time: an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious, altogether hokey script coupled with a visual and aural atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves. Indeed, a lesser director than Altman would be so forgiven; but remembering the more complete and narratively justified worlds of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Nashville and 3 Women, one is harsher, less willing to settle for a half-realized world this time out. The film’s premise is arresting: the ice-world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller has become a whole future society, and tramping heavily coated through the snow is offered as a metaphor for playing the game of life. Cinematographer Jean Boffety’s lenses give every scene a vignette of foggy soft-focus, making the chill tangible, and stressing the fact that this is another Altman dreamfilm. Unlike 3 Women, however, this dream has been consigned to too many writers for fleshing-out, and Quintet emerges as a visually fascinating film with no more real substance than a snowball, its screenplay a botched mixture of self-congratulatory weirdness, flaccid imitation, labored moralism, and just an occasional moment of really disturbing brilliance.

One of the problems is that the scenarists have taken the science-fiction fantasy of the plot as a license for narrative irresponsibility. Even a fantasy world has to make its own kind of sense, has to justify itself, has to agree with itself even if it agrees with nothing else. But the world of Quintet doesn’t have enough internal integrity to keep from distracting us with irritating practical questions: Why don’t the trains run? Why don’t the machines operate? Not because nobody works anymore, as one character suggests; because someone provides the cut wood that everyone uses for fire, someone keeps the public fires burning in the streets, someone keeps the electricity coming to power all those electric lightbulbs. And say, if there are all those lightbulbs, why aren’t there any streetlights? Or electric heaters? If this is a city of five million, how do the same six people keep running into one another? What is the Order here? What prevents anarchy? It is not important how the world of Quintet got the way it is, only that it is getting colder, people are infertile, the human race is on its way out. But how this world works—that is of the essence in science fiction and fantasy, allowing one to separate skilled art from hackwork, integrated and meaningful imagery from a mere clutter of self-consciously futuristic claptrap (I think particularly of the visually spectacular but environmentally impractical and unjustified futuristic architecture of Logan’s Run or the Krypton sequence of Superman).

The literary bankruptcy in the writing and design of the film is paralleled by a weakness in imagery. The speeches made by Grigor the gamemaster (Fernando Rey) proposing the table game Quintet as a metaphor for life and, in fact, as life itself—”the only one left worth living”—are hard-pressed to make tiresome points that Altman at his best would make without explanatory speeches, purely through his power as a cinematic imagist. Altman’s interest in gambling is well-known, and I suppose it was inevitable that he would eventually make a film in which the world is a gaming-room and the players really do take one another out. But after The Tenth Victim, Rollerball, Death Race 2000 and a dozen others, good and bad, including some made-for-TV stuff, this life-and-death-stakes-in-a-future-national-game idea is nothing if not worn. There is some interest in the film’s systematic destruction of all family relationships and of the family itself, and substitution of alliances for friendships. The particulars of the game of Quintet itself intrigue us with their possibilities: Five players compete until only one remains, whereupon a “Sixth Man” steps in fresh to compete on an equal basis with the survivor. But this chamber film’s effort to elevate a chamber game (with a name from chamber music) to the level of a metaphor for life, and to equate the Sixth Man with some metaphysical force of Nothingness we must all confront, is laughably pompous and unconvincing.

Give me Boffety’s beautiful pictures and Tom Pierson’s powerful music score (shamelessly derivative of Mahler and Shostakovich, but haunting nevertheless). Those sights and sounds are what drew me and kept me interested despite the puffiness of the script. And that parallels the film’s story, in an odd way. The process whereby Essex (Paul Newman) ceases to be a family man and the sire of what may have been the old world’s last child or the new world’s first one, and becomes instead a player of high-stakes Quintet, hinges initially on his curiosity: He wants to know what’s going on, and why his wife, brother, and others are dead. As if inevitably, he is drawn in; and despite his disinterest in the outcome of the game, he loses his soul to it, playing it supremely well, if only for the sake of survival. He is taken in by externals, only to feel shocked and cheated at what he discovers; outraged, he nevertheless meets the thing on its own terms, and finally manages to declare his independence of it, trudging off into the unknown, though not without having lost a little of himself. And that is just about what happens to the viewer of Altman’s Quintet.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

QUINTET
Direction: Robert Altman. Screenplay: Frank Barhydt, Patricia Resnick and Robert Altman, after a story by Altman, Resnick and Lionel Chetwynd. Cinematography: Jean Boffety. Production design: Leon Ericksen; art direction: Wolf Kroeger. Editing: Dennis M. Hill. Music: Tom Pierson. Production: Altman.
The players: Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Nina van Pallandt, David Langton, Brigitte Fossey, Tom Hill, Anne Gerety, Craig Richard Nelson.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.