On a freezing cold Saturday morning in 1979, Filmbrain and friend snuck in to see Robert Altman's Quintet. We knew nothing about the film, other than that it was science fiction. As complicated as it was to follow (not to mention mind-numbingly slow, especially for a pair of fourteen year-olds), we sat through the whole thing, convinced that a spaceship and/or giant alien would appear. No such luck. Of course, Filmbrain knew nothing of Tarkovsky at this time, so any nods to Stalker or Solaris were lost on him.
Cut to six years later. Filmbrain at university, watching Quintet for a second time with a group of So. Cal. stoners who are convinced the film is a documentary from the future. Even in the midst of the mind-expanding university years, Quintet still felt intellectually fraudulent, and a half-baked idea at best. (Wasn't Altman doing a lot of drugs at that time?)
Thanks to the Fox Movie Channel and a DVR, Filmbrain has had the opportunity to revisit the film as an adult -- yet even after 1.5 viewings in two days, the film still seems little more than pretentious drivel. However, Filmbrain has an overwhelming desire to be proven wrong.
A brief overview for the uninitiated: It's the future, and it's cold. Damn cold. (Nuclear winter?) The human race is dying out, and the remaining survivors live in iced-over cities where wild dogs feast on the bodies of the dead that litter the streets. With nothing else to do, they fill their days and nights playing a game called Quintet (which consists of placing tschotkes on a five-sided table, and little else). Losing the game results in death, or so it seems. Enter Paul Newman, a seal hunter who returns to the city with his pregnant wife (Brigitte Fossey). A bad move on his part, for both his wife and brother are blown up moments after arriving. Hero Newman is determined to find out who did it, and for the next ninety minutes we get to watch him walk around looking utterly confused ("How did I wind up in this film?") and playing a game of Quintet or two until the film ends.
Now, nobody loves a bit of nihilistic misanthropy more than Filmbrain, but this is really taking it a bit too far. Altman's portrait of humanity in its final throes is beyond bleak, and any message he means for us to glean is lost in the exaggerated misery. Take the shady character known as Saint Christopher (Vittorio Gassman) -- he delivers a sermon on the five stages of life, all of which just happen to be miserable -- it simply becomes laughable.
Aggravating matters is Altman's decision to smear Vaseline around the edges of the lens -- the entire film looks like a vintage Penthouse spread. Was this to meant to give the film a more dreamlike look to it, or was it merely needed to make the remains of the 1967 Montreal Expo (where the entire film was shot) look more post-apocalyptic? That the film is full of references to various "fives" is hardly surprising, but again, is there some deeper meaning behind it all? The cast (which is made of up Bunuel, Bergman and DeSica regulars) look as if they are about to perform Shakespeare on Ice, and like Newman, wander through the film in an almost catatonic state, desperate to work out exactly what is going on.
Scouring the net for reviews has yielded a fair amount of hostility towards the film, with more than one review claiming it to be "the worst film ever made". While it's far cry from that, it is an oddity in the Altman oeuvre, and a frustrating one at that. Coming between 1978's A Wedding and 1979's A Perfect Couple, Quintet is a film that Filmbrain wants to appreciate, but hasn't been able to (as of yet). Is this his riff on Tarkovsky? Bergman? Or is it just another Altman excess, like Popeye? Filmbrain throws it out to his readers -- can one (or more) of you enlighten him about the film? Is there a subtext that he's missing, or is it genuinely the mess it appears to be? Feel free to comment below and show Filmbrain the error of his ways.