Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Film Review: Quintet

"Quintet"  **** (out of ****)

All of life is a game in Robert Altman's "Quintet" (1979).

When "Quintet" was first released in theatres in 1979 the critics and the general public were not receptive to it. Some considered it the worst movie of all time and others declared it the worst movie Robert Altman had directed, at that point in time. To put things in a bit of perspective, you have to remember the 1970s was when Altman hit the mainstream with the release of "M*A*S*H" (1970). His other accomplishments throughout the decade included "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "Nashville" (1975) and "3 Women" (1977). So expectations were always high when Altman released a picture.

"Quintet" was a picture no one expected from Robert Altman. It doesn't neatly fit into his catalog of films. Sure, "Images" (1972) and "3 Women" were a bit bizarre and surreal at times but you could get a handle on the plot. There were strong characters to follow and a beginning, middle and end. "Quintet" simply baffled audiences. They didn't know what to make of it. What was it about? If, in fact, it was about anything. Did Altman have a message lurking around somewhere?

To be fair, when I first saw "Quintet" a few years ago, I enjoyed it but wasn't completely sold on it. Overall I felt the movie worked but it wasn't great. Not a complete success. I have now seen it again and after a few viewings the movie has a lyrical, hypnotic charm to it. I now believe it is a successful film. Does it have something to say about life? Yes. Nothing positive mind you but it does make a commentary.

The film takes place some time in the future. A second ice age has hit earth. Everything, as far as the eye can see, is covered in snow. We learn the world has stopped pro-creating. Only the middle aged and the elderly exist. The world as we know it has ceased to function. There are no movies, no books, no restaurants, no jobs. A stranger, named Essex (Paul Newman), has traveled a long distance with a young woman, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), who may very well be the last person born. She is also pregnant, we suspect, with Essex's child. They have come in search of Essex's brother, Francha (Tom Hill).

The population amuses itself with a board game called quintet, the rules to the game are never explained, but, to bring excitement to their lives, there are some who have decided to play the game in real life with the objective of killing your opponents. Francha was part of this game and when another player kills him, Essex finds himself unknowingly involved in the game with the other players; St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman), Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), Goldstar (David Langton) and Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt).

To call the movie a thriller wouldn't be fair. Characters are dying around Essex as he tries to understand the meaning of it all and there is the possibility he may die too but the movie lacks the thrills you would associate with a action picture. Instead, "Quintet" is an existential film about life. It is an Ingmar Bergman-esque, Bibi Andersson is in the movie after all, study on the meaning of our existence. What is the purpose of life? What pleasure should we take from the daily chore of living?

The movie is very bleak. It is called "slow moving" by some. In David Thompson's book, "Altman on Altman", Altman described the setting as such, "we asked ourselves, what would people live on in these conditions? The only food would come from the sea; anything that gave warmth would be extremely precious. Then, as in any community surviving under extreme conditions, there would be a game they would play, taking the place of religion."

When I first saw the movie I thought it was a parable on religion. The people have lost all hope. They turn to a game for comfort. They live by it. There is one called Grigor (Fernando Rey) who is the adjudicator. He stands by as others play the game. He makes judgement calls when needed, making sure players follow the rules correctly, almost serving as a high priest. In fact, he dresses like one.

Having seen the movie a second and third time, I no longer see it in that light. I feel the movie is more straight forward about its intentions. There is a scene when St. Christopher discusses the five stages of life. He points out, five is not enough. There is a sixth space. The center. The center is the void. It represents bleakness. Emptiness. And that is life. Once you recognize that you are truly able to understand life. You should be grateful you lead a miserable life because that is as good as it gets. Otherwise madness awaits you because then you are faced with nothing. Life has no purpose, so amuse yourself as a distraction.

Altman admits in the same book the bleak tone of the picture may have been the result of the death of his parents. "My father died from cancer" Altman says, before they began shooting in Montreal and adds "my mother had died two years before. I'm sure that influenced the tone of Quintet." And you can understand why someone who has experienced the pain of losing a loved one would feel life has no meaning. It is all a game. A series of random acts.

Still, I suppose there is another way to interpret "Quintet". At the beginning of the movie we see Essex and Vivia walking in the snow towards their destination. They stop to rest. Just as they begin to nap the movie begins. Is everything that happens in "Quintet" a dream? Throughout the picture, in the four corners of the frame, there is a blurriness to the image. One can interpret this to be frost, serving as a visual reminder of the cold world these characters inhabit. But, what if it isn't suppose to represent frost but instead a dream?

In the same opening sequence the two see a goose flying north. Later on the in picture one of the characters says they will travel north. We see images of geese in the picture as well. Is this because this was one of the last images Essex had before he went to sleep? Altman says the movie could be viewed as a western but he really sees it as a fairy tale. A fairy tale is the stuff dreams are made of.

Some of the interesting touches Altman adds to the picture is the way the characters dress. The characters in this movie dress as if they are in the medieval period. They speak that way too. We notice two of the female characters suck their thumb when they are sleeping. As if they are children. One of the characters to do this is Vivia. She is young and innocent perhaps like a child. The other character is Ambrosia. She sucks her thumb in a moment of happiness. When she has hope for life. Does having hope make you a child? Do only the foolish have hope and believe their is meaning to life? Oddly, we never see male characters suck their thumbs. Are women more hopeful than men?

At other times in the picture we see photos on the wall of various people. The photos are usually of minorities yet throughout the picture no one in the cast is a minority. Only white Europeans are alive during this ice age.

Unlike others I enjoy Paul Newman's performance here. It is the most sensitive I think I have ever seen him. He is an innocent man in a confusing world, trying to make sense of it. Everything he had has been taken away from him. He is caught in a situation where he does not understand the rules. Newman isn't really a hero, at least not in the terms we identify a hero as being. He is not macho, killing everyone in sight. Fighting desperately for his life. And that may be why people didn't like him or the movie. It doesn't give audiences what they were expecting. It doesn't play by the rules of a conventional genre piece. Altman bends the rules a bit. Throws the audience a curve ball. But, that was always Altman's style. He always played by his own rules and made the picture he wanted to make.

I'm not sure I truly understand the meaning of "Quintet". There may be more to the movie that I am not picking up on. But, even if there is more to it, I am content to view the movie as a metaphor for life. The bleak tone and message doesn't bother me because it reflects my own feelings towards life. I enjoy trying to discover new things about the movie and trying to understand it. I like the minimalist musical score. I like the slow pacing of the movie. And I like Newman's performance. In short, I like everything about this movie that everyone else hates. All of the so-called "faults" of the movie I find to be "strengths".

"Quintet" is clearly not one of Altman's most popular pictures. It had been out of print for years on VHS and was not properly given a DVD release. It was released as part of a collection of Altman films but not released on its own. It is still difficult to come by. Plus, there is still so much negative word of mouth, that it prevents others from even trying to find the movie. But, I enjoy it. It is not the place to start if you haven't seen any of Altman's other films but it is worth seeing. You have to be in the right mood to appreciate it.  The movie has positive qualities, you just have to be willing to meet it half way.