‘One man against the world’
Quintet is a 1979 American science-fiction film about a future ice age in which humanity occupies its remaining time by playing a board game. For one small group, this obsession is not enough; they play the game with living pieces … and only the winner survives.
Directed by Robert Altman from a screenplay co-written with Frank Barhydt, Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick. The movie stars Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, Fernando Rey, Vittoria Gassman, Brigitte Fossey and Nina Van Pallandt.
After nuclear war throws the planet Earth into a second ice age, a man named Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant wife (Brigitte Fossey) make their way to the last known city remaining, a snowbound and ice-fringed settlement of peasant-ish types.
In a sudden, shocking attack, the wife is killed, and Essex realizes the truth behind the principle pastime of the community, a nihilistic board game called Quintet. Throws of dice dictate real-life strategies of stealthy assassination and murder between small groups of players. And Essex is still in the game…
Throughout most of the 1970s, Robert Altman was a favourite director among respected movie critics, thanks to three career milestones in quick order that hopped across genres: the anti-military-mocking comedy MAS*H (1970), the anti-western McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), and a veritable screen equivalent of the Great Anti-American Novel, Nashville (1975).
However, when the unconventional Altman dared to colour outside the lines, those same critics could turn against him. Quintet (1979) was a rare step into the science-fiction genre for Altman (his Countdown (1968) being a surprisingly cynical take on the Apollo moon program), and the reviews were almost universal in their scorn and hatred. Yet, it’s worthwhile going against the grain (and joining SF Encyclopedia compiler John Clute) in thinking there is considerably more merit to Quintet than it got from those same disco-age commentators who couldn’t be bothered to wipe the Star Wars (1977) out of their jaded eyes.
Altman worked over the screenplay with a variety of writers – the ones we know about include Lionel Chetwynd and Patricia Resnick, and as the material took shape – initially a sort of whodunit with an Irish Republican Army/terrorist-type angle, not unlike Carol Reed’s The Third Man. At one point the idea was to evoke some sort of shadowy, noirish European capital.
After scouting locations in Chicago, Altman went to Montreal seeking an atmospheric underground tube system and stumbled across the decaying remains of “Man and His World,” a lavish, abandoned exhibit once part of the Montreal Expo of 1967 (effectively, the World Fair that year). “All those weird buildings were just sitting around going to ruin. It occurred to me that because we’d be shooting in the dead of winter, we could just go in and freeze everything. So we threw the story in a futuristic time slot and rewrote it almost entirely… Essentially, we found a location and wrote the film to fit it.”
The result envisions a dying winter-world following a nuclear war. A survivor named Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), a potential Adam-and-Eve type, end up most unhappily in the last known functioning city, a fantastic place constructed in pentagon designs and engulfed in ice crystals, with minimally functioning steam and electricity, but also strewn with dead bodies being scavenged by black dogs. Essex and Vivia are initially welcomed by the medieval-garbed inhabitants, over whom a fellow named Grigor (Fernando Rey) seems to have some authority. Then, shockingly, Vivia is killed by a bomb-thrower.
The truth behind the dystopia: the citizens, having given up all hope for tomorrow, busy themselves with an all-consuming dice game called Quintet. Five players make moves on a board that, in real life, dictate they strive to kill each other in a pattern, by stealth, guile or just brute force. Grigor serves as a sort of referee, and Essex realizes that even after his grievous loss, he is still in the game (Vivia’s murderer, meanwhile, has already perished in another move). Essex tries to determine who among the small number of people around him are his targets and who are his would-be assassins.
Throughout this, there is a hypnotic music score by Tom Pierson (a bit reminiscent of Philip Glass or Mike Oldfield), a polyglot international cast in mannered performances, and some especially memorable deaths. Altman does raise the suspense temperature in this chilly climate, building to what one expects will be a big action showdown a la Besson’s La Derniere Combat – then completely whips the rug out from under viewer expectations (La Derniere Combat with no Last Combat). Given one’s temperament, it’s either a disappointment or an appreciation of the maverick filmmaker trying to do things differently.
Audiences certainly did not find any of this as enthralling as cute little robots or Death Stars, so Quintet died at the box office. But for those whose tastes run to post-apocalypse objects d’art it still has a vivid, fatal vision. While the mise-en-scene and the finale seem to impart a notion that, even the most hopeless situation, there should still be a reason to press on, that mankind will survive this endless winter (as in Snowpiercer), Altman told one cinema magazine at the time – spoiler alert – that in his opinion, no, there’s no hope in the end; mankind in Quintet will go extinct after the end credits. Oh, dear. Still, do not write off Quintet itself so easily, as so many other have done.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“It is a bleak and obscure futurist fantasy in which everybody is playing unfathomably mysterious games, taken at a slow pace by Altman over a long-seeming two-hour running time, with a lack of tension and suspense. It does, however, come complete with stylish visuals of Montreal in winter, shot by Jean Boffety, the film’s one truly distinctive element.” Derek Winnert
“The actors look bored and confused, the pacing is deadly, and the music is distractingly weird, with thundering drums playing over quiet scenes as if loud scoring can somehow generate excitement. Worst of all, the movie takes itself way too seriously, resulting in a monotonous vibe that hits viewers like a narcotic.” Every ’70s Movie
“Quintet may be well-designed but it’s also a painfully slow film. Just because the film takes place on a glacier, that doesn’t mean that it needs to move like one. The slow pace is not helped by the fact that many of the characters have a tendency to suddenly start delivering these faux profound philosophical monologues, the majority of which are about as deep as the typical Tumblr post.” Lisa Marie Bowman, Through the Shattered Lens
Cast and characters:
Paul Newman … Essex
Vittorio Gassman … St. Christopher
Fernando Rey … Grigor
Bibi Andersson … Ambrosia
Brigitte Fossey … Vivia
Nina van Pallandt … Deuca (as Nina Van Pallandt)
David Langton … Goldstar
Thomas Hill … Francha (as Tom Hill)
Monique Mercure … Redstone’s Mate
Craig Richard Nelson … Redstone
Maruska Stankova … Jaspera
Anne Gerety … Aeon
Michel Maillot … Obelus
Max Fleck … Wood Supplier
Françoise Berd … Charity House Woman (as Francoise Berd)
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1