During a future ice age, dying humanity occupies its remaining time by playing a board game called "Quintet." For one small group, this obsession is not enough; they play the game with living pieces ... and only the winner survives.
In the distant future the world is in the grip of another ice age. A city originally built to house five million people is now in its death throes as the relentlessly advancing glacier is slowly crushing the metropolis's steel infrastructure. The relatively few surviving fur-clad inhabitants, perhaps thousands, perhaps only hundreds, drift aimlessly in their grim, drab world, awaiting their inevitable fate as they try to survive from day to day with scavenged firewood and minimal diet. Their only solaces are booza, an alcoholic drink distilled from moss, and Quintet, a seemingly innocuous board game for six players. The only other surviving mammals are roving packs of hungry mastiffs which roam the city's corridors and quickly dispose of the remains of the dead. Newly arrived from the south is Essex with his pregnant wife Vivia, seeking shelter in the doomed city only to find it populated by people middle-aged or older. They had supported themselves by hunting seals, but now that the ... Written by
QUINTET is generally regarded as the greatest blooper of Altman's career, a pretentious embarrassment attributable to an overconsumption of drugs, power or both. Seeing it again twenty years later, it sparkles as one of Altman's bravest achievements.
Set in an apocalyptic snowscape so blasted it makes the Coens' Fargo look homy, it's ostensibly about a loner played by Paul Newman trying to fight his way to shelter or safety, blocked by the survivors' lethal betting game, Quintet. But that just suggests the thinnest layer of skin on this movie, which evokes a collaboration between the Tarkovsky of SOLARIS and STALKER and a crotchety American modernist like Aaron Copland.
What astounds in this movie is Altman's ability to use his flexible, improvisatory, colloquial style to create a geography of dreams as palpable and authentic as David Lynch's. (Moments of this movie, with their garish, one-of-a-kind production design, suggest the outre fantasias of the great Spanish B director Jesus Franco.) The cinematographer Jean Boffety softens the corners of the lens to create a snowbound, claustral feeling in every image, and Altman conjures scenes that could only have come from dreams: dogs on a snowy hillock feasting on the flesh of dead men in black, forming a living Motherwell painting; a concrete 411 directory made of painted glass charts, shattered and spinning, that tinkle like wind chimes.
The composer Tom Pierson's work--alternately elegiac and horrific--equals the finest, most dissonant scores Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Peckinpah. And the film reminds you that, of all contemporary directors, Altman is the most able to unearth pictures of naked dread from the unconscious--remember the ruby-eyed statue glaring in the dark in A WEDDING, or the rape fantasias glimmering on the swimming-pool bottom at night in THREE WOMEN? We think of Altman as the great democrat of American cinema, the first to tell stories about interwoven communities rather than heroic subjects. And we think of him telling them in his patented offhand, homespun voice. QUINTET is a reminder that Altman is also one of our great lyric poets, a high-flier who like his hero lays it all on every roll of the dice. In QUINTET, Altman throws away all the gifts he'd come to rely on--and time reveals that this daring long shot paid off big.
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