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In general there are serious problems with the mise-en-scene employed here. It's clear that no small amount of thought went into factors like costume and production design, but neither is very effective in evoking a believable world. Perhaps it is a matter of scale; the film is so stage-bound that I laughed out loud once it was mentioned that "five million" people lived in the city. (Yes I understand the constraints of the film's budget. Matte paintings here and there might have helped.) In all the most disappointing Altman film I've ever seen. Great ideas and grand metaphors do not always come through in art--it's just part of the game.
For the record, I loved Zardoz, which is generally regarded as another high-concept misfire, so I had hopes I would like this one in spite of the suspiciously low Rotten Tomatoes score.
Unfortunately, RT was right. This was just boring and terrible. Basically, an ice age has enveloped the Earth and everyone passes their time playing a game called Quintet - and people get killed over it. That's it; that's the plot.
The whole thing had the feel of a pilot for a TV show that was never picked up. You know, like maybe in the next episode, something interesting would happen. There definitely wasn't enough there to stand on its own.
On top of everything else, it takes itself really seriously, so it even fails in the "so bad it's good" category".
I can't recommend watching this movie for any reason whatsoever.
* A point of note - "Quintet" was filmed at the old Expo '67 site in Montréal, Québec, adding to the film's vision of decay and abandonment.
Well, despite this, something about it must have made an impression though, because a few years later I rented it on tape and gave the movie another try. I was surprised by how different the movie seemed to me. I watched it again a day later and thought, "Wow, this movie has a lot going on."
I appreciated the underlying theme that life is more than simply surviving - otherwise it becomes a sort of twisted addiction of playing a game with death. Essex's question , "What do I win?" and it's hollow answer of "The chance to play again" pretty much sums up the generation we find ourselves a part of as well.
I know this is a flawed movie, but somehow it has become one of my favorites. I still have it on beta and am hoping it comes out in a restored letterbox version with the frosted window effect I remember from the theater. It is a cold movie and you are expected to watch it from arms length - once you get hat, the movie begins to come into focus.
If you hated the move the first time, give it another try.
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.
We have a snowbound pentagonal city, and we have a seal hunter Essex (played by Paul Newman) approaching the city from the infinite snowscape of the South. We have an almost bizarre quality of cast including Bunuel favourite Fernando Rey and Bergman regular Bibi Andersson. And we have a deadly game, Quintet. The game it seems is played both on a board and occasionally in the flesh so-to-speak (imagine if people tried to act out chess). Robert Altman even invented a real game of Quintet for the film, and apparently people still play it. It's clear that the game is vicious from the start, when we see a player manipulate pieces so as to arrange the "killing order"; also that there is a philosophy behind the game, individuals covet their pieces which are often high craft, and passed down as heirlooms (Altman had people finding curios in antique shops for this). The central driver of the plot is that Essex witnesses a murder and spends the whole movie trying to find why it happens and what it all means.
I would call the set for the film one of the "great movie sets". It's shot on the dilapidated remains of the Expo 67, or the Montreal World Fair from 1967, which was based on some partly man made islands in the Saint-Lawrence River. Expo 67 was a fairly enormous matter of Canadian pride back then, the housing development built to coincide with it "Habitat 67" is stunning (pictures can be got from google quite easily).
It is an example of the great genius of Robert Altman that instead of control freaking a script he went to Montreal and let the script fit itself around the deserted bewintered pavilions. One of the players, called Saint Christopher runs a mission for the feeble where he preaches all sorts of skewed dissonant religion. Behind him whilst he orates, we see a banner, clearly a relic from the Expo, "The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle". This is a quote from Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky, the father of Russian space exploration, and written in 1911, perhaps decorating some sort of planetarium originally. In the religious context relating to the afterlife in which Altman places it, it becomes phantasmagorical and bewitching (as does a photo collage in the main quintet hall). This is a true example of film aleatoricism, the film was already green-lighted before Altman had been anywhere near the Expo, originally the idea was to shoot in Chicago.
Another thing Altman makes an asset out of are his clearly wizened and ageing cast, it lends gravitas because the world of Quintet is one where no-one has been born in at least a generation, it's just something else that he made fit. One common complaint of the film is that the cast didn't have very good English. That is undoubtedly true, however I wasn't having very much problem with it myself. It goes to emphasise the estrangement of all the characters, it's right that they find communication difficult, one character smiles on hearing Essex use the word friend because he hasn't heard that word in a long time.
This film is very philosophical about the nature of existence and the directions we should take, however let me give you the big health warning that you will only get out of it what you yourself put in, hence the current 4.6/10 rating on the IMDb, it is not a film for the idling. One thing I also liked about it by way of image is that it was very much like a silent film. Altman in a great many of the shots has had Vaseline smeared around the edges of the camera to create that kind of cosy centring effect that you see in early silent films, ie. the oneiric lack or periphery. He's also enjoying the shooting of nature. It reminds me a bit of Sir Arne's Treasure (1919 - Mauritz Stiller), where a lot of the focus is simply on shooting nature, and also of the frozen alpine scenes you get in German bergfilms.
At the moment this film is available on R1 DVD via a four-disc box-set of Altman films. One extra bonus point for the set is it has a Quintet documentary with chat from RA himself. As regards what people have said of the Cold War, I didn't hear Altman mention it once, it's a film that works just as well now. Surely there were Cold War parallels, but in fact the film is utterly timeless.
I want to give you a further health warning that for those of you who are looking for a lot of plot and in depth characterisation, you will find in this film two hours of monotony, and it will also depress you. For me it's true genius.
The film is practically incomprehensible. It seems a disastrous combination of experimental theater pretentiousness and a major studio trying to jump on the post-Star Wars bandwagon (not that this film is at all modeled after that one, but you can imagine that the studio signed on hoping for a much different Paul Newman sci-fi film). The story is nonexistent, and the characters remain strangers to us all the way through.
Altman has packs of dogs feeding on dead bodies throughout the movie, obviously straining to make some sort of POINT. But since the movie is so poorly thought out, starting with the lack of plot on up, it really isn't about anything at all.
The production design is confused, the photography is undone by the blurs on the edges, and the score is terrible. However, "Quintet" does have one redeeming feature. Not only is the movie clearly filmed out in the snow and ice, but the interiors are kept cold as well. You see the actors' breath in every scene. You really FEEL the cold.
I thought that maybe I had suffered a stroke during this movie because I couldn't concentrate very well and I seemed to be drooling more than normal. It was SSSSOOOOO slow and SSSOOOOO quiet that we both fought like wild dogs to stay awake. At one point, I almost bit my tongue off in order to stay awake for this piece of shite. Unless, of course, I was having a seizure-- which wouldn't surprise me in the least.
If there is a hell, then the movie theater in hell shows this film and only this film. (Ok, OK...maybe it sometimes double features with "Shirley Valentine.")
I'd gladly take Ed Wood, Jr's masterpieces over this guano ANY day. Seriously... I'm crapping you negative.
Did Altman have a painkiller habit while he was making this film? I'm just curious. But more than that, I'm dying to find out if he was thinking at all and, if so, what exactly could that have been??!!!! Doing his laundry maybe?
Do not believe "Quintet"'s supporters. Those who "like" the film have executed the amazing feat of effectively lying to themselves. This is not an intelligent art film. It is not complex or thought-provoking (unless you count, "How did this get made?"). It does not effectively create a "mood" (unless you appreciate utter, insufferable boredom). It is not a "cool" head movie. It is not Lynchian (that is an insult to David Lynch). It is not "deep" or "brave" or any other such nonsense. The distorted lenswork is not revolutionary or fascinating or even justified. Everything about this film is embarrassing and amateurish. This tragedy could have been prevented in the earliest stages of preproduction, with the realization that there was no script.
Altman is a valuable director. He can be utterly brilliant. But he is human. Humans make terrible mistakes. Like "Quintet." Don't make the mistake of watching it (or, if nothing else, paying to watch it).
I remember seeing this at my local twin on opening weekend with a full house. By the time the picture ended it was less than a quarter full. Never have I witnessed such a mass exodus without there being an emergency to drive people out. That should tell you how bad it is. I believe it to be the worst film ever made involving such major talent in front of and behind the camera.
To say Quintet is plodding and pretentious is like saying that being shot in the gut is somewhat uncomfortable. The actors involved either look shell-shocked (Newman and Anderson) or as if they stumbled out of a community theater production of The Merchant of Venice with bad costumes and fake accents intact (everyone else). The plot makes so little sense that there is no point in trying to follow it (something to do with a post-apocalyptic society centered around a game that turns deadly). The sets, while somewhat interesting in the abstract, are so poorly filmed that the viewer cannot distinguish a frozen dog from a metal statue. And the musical score is akin to listening to two hours of fingernails being scraped down a blackboard. Actually, that would probably have been preferable to the bombastic, high-pitched noise that was passed off as a "score". To top it all off, Altman uses the most horrible filming technique imaginable: everything is framed in a blurry halo, so that one's eyes are constantly trying to focus on the edges of the screen. This, along with the "music" is, I believe, what provoked my feelings of nausea.
About 10 minutes into the film, I realized how awful it really was but I kept thinking that, perhaps, Newman would, at least, be decent. Sadly, he is clearly as astonished as the viewer that he is in this trash. Anderson has the same look of shocked horror. In one scene she brakes down in very genuine tears. The poor woman must have been thinking "I went from The Seventh Seal to this, someone kill me now!"
Before putting this in the VCR, I jokingly said to my husband "well, it can't be as bad as The Omega Man or Zardoz". Now I know the truth: both those films are masterpieces compared to Quintet.
I cannot emphasize enough how terrible this movie is. Anyone thinking of seeing it should do themselves a favor and stare at a wall for two hours, you will find it more rewarding and considerably less painful! If you must see it out of some strange, masochistic desire, at least take dramamine and wear ear plugs. I gave this a 1/10 and wish that I could give it lower.
Director Robert Altman is not one to beg an audience to like his films, let alone understand them. Sometimes he lets you slip into the picture to be a part of the crowd, like in M*A*S*H, NASHVILLE and A WEDDING, films so full of hubbub and orchestrated chaos, one or two more bodies in the scene wouldn't make much of a difference. And other times, he seems to resent the fact that someone might even be watching his film; as in IMAGES or THREE WOMEN, where the stories are almost personal monologues made for an audience of one, Altman. With QUINTET, Altman seems to purposely dare anyone to become involved with the narrative.
You can't depend on Altman to do the logical or the expected, which is sometimes the thing that makes his films so remarkably iconoclastic. But sometimes doing the unexpected isn't daring, just dumb. For instance, in QUINTET, we are introduced to a young woman who is apparently the last person on earth capable of getting pregnant, and she is, indeed, with child. This last ray of hope in a decaying society is almost immediately extinguished; Altman doesn't even wait until the end to play his last depressing card in this elaborate nihilistic and pessimistic tale. He lets us know how empty and meaningless life is right off the bat. Brave? Maybe. Stupid? Definitely. Devoid of a purpose, he tries to build a story on a rapidly melting iceberg, all the while reminding us how pointless the effort is.
For the record, QUINTET, can at least claim to be prophetic. The story is centered on a treacherous game played by the various bored characters. It is a form of TAG (the assassination game): a handful of people target each other for elimination, each as a would-be assassin and each as a would-be victim. Two or more can form alliances to kill a third. As they die off, new targets are assigned. Whoever lives, wins. All of this happens at some exotic, inhospitable wasteland. It is, to a great extent, an extreme, sci-fi version of "Survivor" -- minus the commercial plugs and faked "reality."
It is not a bad concept for a sci-fi epic. A post-apocalyptic setting, a microcosm of the world (the cast is pointedly multinational), a game where no on can be trusted or least not for long, and where no one really wins. Literally a cold war. A steely eyed director with a taste for dark humor and violent invention could have a field day. The mystery in QUINTET is not in the game or how it is played, but in why it exists it all. If the game "Quintet" is a metaphor for life, then Altman, seems to see nothing in the material but a chance to show life to be an empty, meaningless game -- a conclusion as obvious as it is untrue. Given the lively, albeit cynical nature of the rest of his diverse films, I don't believe that Altman believes in QUINTET either. And if Altman has no faith in his material, why should we?
Why should a viewer be expected to watch over an hour of any movie before whatever's going on becomes clear? I simply do not enjoy watching a movie with no clear plot, or one where the viewer must be kept in the dark for an extended period of time.
I think I've given a score of "1" out of a possible "10" fewer than ten times out of the hundreds of movies rated. This one is indeed as cold as they get.
And what's with the vaseline all over the camera lens? Folks who like this movie are fooling themselves, just because you dont understand a movie doesn't mean that it's deep, it means that the director and writer didn't know what they were doing.
Quintet is like a lot of the new wave of science fiction that came out of the 60's (I found it especially reminiscent of John Brunner's "The Squares of the City"). Set in an enigmatic future where another Ice Age has occurred it's the story of a game - a game that at one point mirrored life but now, in the city, it has become life that mirrors the game. The protagonist - Essex comes into this city with his wife and becomes involved in this game, not realizing how far the game leads. The game is played by a variety of interesting characters but the most fascinating is Saint Christopher. He just infuses the whole landscape of the snow bound city with his preachings on the desolation of life. The whole atmosphere of the setting just pulls you right into it with it's strange buildings and falling snow. And then there's the ending. An ending of a story is perhaps the most important part, as this is what you leave with, the part you take with you after the story is done - so an ending needs to be good. If done wrong it could ruin the whole story. Luckily Quintet has a great ending. The final, slightly ambiguous scene makes this future world seem even more captivating.
If you're a fan of 60-70's sf (Silverberg, Brunner, Ballard, et al.) or stories revolving around games (Hesse's Magister Ludi or the Glass Bead Game for example) then you should check out Quintet. If you are looking for a movie that you don't have to pay attention to or think about then look somewhere else, Hollywood is full of such movies.
(Note: I find it amusing that movies like Last Year at Marienbad at Naked Lunch which don't make any sense except what each individual decides for themselves get great reviews yet Quintet which does make sense to anyone who actually pays attention and uses a few brain cells gets poor reviews.)
I knew I was in for something special. As the movie began I noticed that there were credits for the original screenplay and then for the final screenplay. Dissension in the ranks. There was inadequate explanation of where Paul Newman and Bibi Anderson came from and why they were going to the city. Indeed, the idea of hosing down Expo '67 in the winter and allowing the icicles to freeze gave it an other-worldly appearance. (I think that could have been Altman's attraction to the project.) Living in the Midwest during the winter of '78-'79 made me very sensitive to freezing weather. I moved to California the next fall.
There are two last items to consider: the dogs and the fish. The city was home to dozens if not hundreds of dogs. They scavenged for meat (often human bodies.) The malaise affecting the human population disabled them from disposing of the human dead. And finally the fish. There are several shots showing fish being harvested and processed at the beginning of the film, showing that there was an adequate food source for the people who lived in the city.
And finally a mention of the Game: there was a feeling of depression to the movie and the inhabitants of the city. When cut off from a natural human life that includes the having and raising of children, one can get depressed. An aberrant lifestyle that made a game out of killing others might result.