Directed By: Robert Altman
Screenplay By: Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt, Patricia Resnick
Story By: Robert Altman, Lionel Chetwynd, Patricia Resnick
Produced By: Robert Altman
Cast: Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes
Review Date: September 10, 2010
In 1979, Robert Altman set out to create his passion project. This passion project was entitled Quintet, A sci-fi flick set in a post-apocalyptic world coated in ice and blustery snow. It starred Paul Newman as Essex, a seal hunter who is thrust into the violent world of quintet, a game about life and death. Altman creates a world so convincingly cold, bleak, and harsh I must commend him on his efforts. He surely saw this film through to its end, but by golly, it should have been the end of him too. This film is so bad it makes Battlefield Earth a masterpiece by comparison. At the very least, Battlefield contained a few laughs. Quintet contains as much life as its barren tundra setting.
The film begins with Essex and his wife, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), trudging along the windswept snow dunes seeking refuge. The viewer immediately discovers an atonal, disconcerting score that accompanies their journey. What should have been evocative of the surrounding landscape and era instead comes off as sloth-like and irritating. Worse still, the audience is subjected to its dissonant and off-kilter harmonies throughout the entire two-hour running time (that was really only two hours? I could have sworn it was longer). Essex and Vivia are not only seeking an ice-laden metropolis but also Essex’s brother in the hopes he can aid them in some way. Altman never explains why he seeks his brother, and after a terrible accident that leaves all but Essex dead, it doesn’t matter anyway. The film shifts tones so abruptly that what preceded it might as well have been a different film. An equally boring and distant film, mind you.
It’s here the film descends into such convolution and pretentiousness that it not only becomes hard to follow, but begins to offend as well. Essex discovers the killer, witnesses his murder at the hands of god knows whom, and poses as said killer for god knows why. We eventually learn who, and why, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s clear that this film is merely Altman’s meditation on existentialism, but all of this “substance” ultimately adds to nothing. There is plenty of symbolism (frozen bums, frozen skulls, frozen dogs, frozen everything), hollow introspection, and superfluous monologues which aim for evocation but miss the target altogether. It’s merely a scatter of puzzle pieces that were never meant to fit together. Worse still is the conviction by which Altman directs. The film never looks or feels lazy, but rather it’s as if the film, on it’s own, is trying to push a glacier up a hill. A monumental task, no doubt, but altogether impossible.
Essentially, the name Quintet derives from the game Essex and fellow players engage in the second half of the film. It’s a deviation from Chinese checkers, but when you lose, you die for real. They kill you off because that’s just how things work in this holocaustic world. I believe it’s due to a lack of resources, but again, it’s all about allegories. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Many filmmakers leave interpretation up to the viewer with the hope that they muster up their own inherent meanings, but the utter lack of drive and impact within the narrative leaves little room for analysis. It’s as if this film is an in-group, and the audience is the out-group, yet it won’t allow the out-group to assimilate. I’m beginning to beat a dead horse here, but so does this film.
When Essex finally brings down the bad guys in the dull and spineless finale, the film comes to its much-desired close. The camera leers at Paul Newman, in his peculiar medieval costumes, and he couldn’t look more tragically bored. You will be too if you watch the film. If you want to witness a pitiful disservice to a fine actor, then watch Quintet, otherwise stay far and clear away from the film and stare at a blank wall instead.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.