Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Fans of the late Robert Altman's films - I'm one of them - must contend with the uneveness of his career. He made some truly great films - McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short Cuts - some interesting failures - The Wedding, Popeye - and a few real dogs - Prêt-à-Porter, Beyond Therapy, and Quintet.  I've been somewhat obsessed with tracking down the latter: like The Keep, it's a genre film by a major director that has more or less disappeared from view, possibly the least-watched of all of Altman's films.  There was a video, but no American or UK DVD release; I finally got hold of it on an Italian DVD.  And I really wanted to like it, if only because its freight of bad reviews were catnip to my contrarianism.  But, oh dear.

It's Altman's second science-fiction effort.  His first, Countdown (1968), is a technothriller about a desperate race to beat the Russians to the Moon that went out of date (or became alternate history) a year after it was released.  Quintet (1979), set in a frozen city in a world overcome by a new ice age, is the real far-future post-apocalyptic deal.  And while it really isn't a good film - laborious and pretentious, devoid of any real passion or suspense - it is interesting.

Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter who's run out of seals to hunt, returns to the city of his birth, where the last human survivors pass what's left of their time play endless tournaments of the eponymous board game while dogs gnaw at disregarded frozen corpses.  Essex is accompanied by a young pregnant woman, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), who is carrying the first human child in a generation, but Quintet isn't in any way as hopeful as Children of Men.  Shortly after Essex is reunited with his brother, Vivia and everyone else in the brother's apartment is killed by a bomb, and Essex becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy of players who are acting out quintet's killing strategies for real.  Although this is almost immediately apparent to the audience, Essex takes a very long time to catch on, clumping glumly through half-ruined rooms and corridors while a fine international cast of visibly chilled actors (Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson, Vittorio Gassman) spout philosophical cliches about the meaning of life and death.

Mostly filmed in the site of Montreal's 1967 World's Fair, in midwinter, it is authentically frozen, and despite a vaseline effect presumably meant to suggest that the lens is iced up, there are some lovely passages: a tracking shot that follows Essex and Vivia slogging across the white page of the tundra, past a train half-buried in snow drifts; an overhead shot showing Essex launching Vivia's corpse on a river choked with ice floes.  The medieval furs and caps of the costumes hint at the genre paintings of Bruegel the Elder; the set-dressing nicely suggests a technologically-advanced future regressing to barbarism (although the whole canine corpse-eating thing is more than a bit overplayed; pretty soon, predicting when the five Rottweillers will next turn up becomes risibly easy). The problem is that nothing much happens, and much of what does happen is either not very interesting; like the game of quintet, whose five-sided gaming tables represent stages in life from birth to death, the slight story is overburdened with symbology and fatalistic nihilism.

If Altman intended to make a pseudo-philosophical mashup of Zardoz and Last Year in Marienbad, then he definitely succeeded.  What he failed to do was avoid the principle weakness of weak or bad science fiction: explaining idea and themes in lumpy As-you-know-Bob monologues rather than scattering hints throughout the development of narrative and story.  Altman's strength was making the films he wanted to make - films only he could have made - rather than pandering to commercial concerns.  But it also led him, on occasion, into making films than almost no one else wanted to watch.  If nothing else, Quintet is a useful lesson in the perils of artistic indulgence.


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