Robert Altman's QUINTET is an allegorical, apocalyptic fantasy that's filled with impenetrable symbolism and mystifying philosophy, in which Paul Newman and an international all-star cast play a deadly game in a barren and frozen futuristic wasteland.
Ten years after the Earth is frozen in a new ice age, seal hunter Essex (Paul Newman) goes with his pregnant lover Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) to a snowbound city to find his brother Francha (Thomas Hill |X Tom Hill). In celebration of Vivia's pregnancy, Francha and the others begin to play a popular
board game called "Quintet," but while playing, a bomb is tossed into the room which kills Francha and Vivia. Essex chases the killer (Craig Richard Nelson), named Redstone, who in turn, has his throat cut by a man named St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). In Redstone's pocket, Essex finds some
"Quintet" game pieces and a list of six names: Redstone, Francha, Deuca, Goldstar, St. Christopher, and Ambrosia. Posing as Redstone, Essex goes to a hotel and finds Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), Goldstar (David Langton) and St. Christopher, along with a judge named Grigor
(Fernando Rey) who's refereeing a "Quintet" tournament in which people are really being killed.
After Goldstar and Dueca are both brutally murdered, Essex warns Ambrosia that her name is also on the list, and they spend the night together. The next day, Ambrosia schemes to have St. Christopher eliminated by insisting that Essex be allowed to enter the tournament and Grigor rules he can play
since he's impersonating Redstone. St. Christopher sets out to kill Essex, but Ambrosia warns him in advance and St. Christopher is killed falling through the ice while chasing Essex. Essex returns to his brother's place to retrieve some game pieces and when Ambrosia follows him, he mistakenly
believes that she is trying to kill him and slashes her throat. When he returns to the hotel and tells Grigor he's "the winner" and asks for his prize, Grigor tells him the prize is merely being allowed to live. Grigor tries to convince Essex to stay and continue playing, but he leaves the city
and heads north into the snowy wilderness.
Although QUINTET is quite possibly the worst film ever made by a great director, it's not without its points of interest, simply because it is by a great director. It's certainly more intriguing in retrospect than when it came out in 1979 and was viciously attacked by virtually every critic (even
Altman's admirers), who called it the final folly of his decade-long "arrogance" and took particular glee in considering its box-office failure to be the maverick Altman's "comeuppance." There is no doubt that it's fairly incoherent and almost completely uninvolving in a traditional "story" sense,
but it must be taken into account that it was the second of three films made by Altman in 1979 (in between A PERFECT COUPLE and THE WEDDING, both lighthearted comedies). Thus, the film registers as a kind of conscious experimental departure and a deliberate attempt to confuse audience expectations
by a filmmaker who was continually trying to redefine the narrative and visual parameters of American movies. This is not to say that an unsuccessful work of art has merit merely because it's purposely designed to be "different," but despite all of its undeniable flaws, QUINTET can exert a
peculiar power on a purely visceral level.
Like Altman's 3 WOMEN (1977), the entire film is designed to look and seem like a dream, with all of a dream's attendant illogic, and it features superb cinematography that's blurred around the edges, and visually striking art direction of the medieval-like frozen future. But unlike 3 WOMEN, which
had its visual basis in a recognizable environment, QUINTET is a dream of the future, in which the plethora of arcane symbolism (such as the huge skull made of metal and ice; the giant photos depicting third-world poverty and oppression; the obsession with numerology, particularly the notion of
"5" representing the stages of life), is so ambiguous that it could mean anything and nothing, depending on the viewer. Still, there are several haunting images (Essex sliding Vivia's dead body into the icy river; the tiny figure of Essex trudging through the vast snowy landscape and watching an
escaping geese fly overhead; the shock on Ambrosia's face after Essex slashes her throat), and the "game" can be interpreted on several levels to be both a metaphor for the struggle to survive in Hollywood as well as the attempt to find some meaning in life while being pursued by death. QUINTET
may be a failure and a pretentious mess, but in the context of Altman's overall body of work, it's fascinating nonetheless.
(Violence, sexual situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1979
- Rating: R
- Review: Robert Altman's QUINTET is an allegorical, apocalyptic fantasy that's filled with impenetrable symbolism and mystifying philosophy, in which Paul Newman and an international all-star cast play a deadly game in a barren and frozen futuristic wasteland. Ten… (more)