**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B-
starring Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, Fernando Rey, Vittorio Gassman
screenplay by Frank Barhydt & Robert Altman and Patricia Resnick
directed by Robert Altman
by Bill Chambers Set during another Ice Age (in a featurette on the DVD, co-writer/director Robert Altman makes the even loopier suggestion that the action takes place on another planet, perhaps to either demonstrate what little use he has for prologue or account for a total absence of people of colour), Quintet stars Paul Newman--never particularly well-matched with the iconoclasts--as Essex, a seal hunter trekking across the frozen tundra with pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) in search of his brother Francha (Tom Hill), who lives in candlelit ruins that now constitute a metropolis. Francha greets Essex by inviting him to play Quintet, a glyphic board game that has developed a religious following in these joyless times (some of Quintet's adjudicators have even adopted the names of patron saints, and they all wear makeshift Tudor caps), and when Essex goes off to fetch firewood, Altman pulls a Psycho and kills off every member of his party. It turns out that latter-day Louis XIV Grigor (Fernando Rey) has turned this dystopia into a human Quintet board by orchestrating the deaths of losing players. For largely nebulous reasons, Essex assumes the identity of Francha's assassin and joins a high-stakes tournie; Grigor sees through this ruse but decides to humour him, if only because to do otherwise would be unsportsmanlike.
As Altman habitually reclaims the mantle of American cinema's premier anthropologist, we don't really think of him as going through 'periods' like other artists. Nevertheless, Quintet belongs to a brief flirtation with existentialism that confirms something Altman has been telling us for years, i.e., that he's better at rattling ant farms than building them. (The infinitely more successful mindfuck 3 Women warps reality instead of fabricating it.) It was around this time that Altman acquired the rights to Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (a project he eventually bequeathed to protégé Alan Rudolph), and the picture seems to test-drive the author's patented blend of apocalyptic prognostications and social satire, complete with metatextual Easter eggs like the casting of Fossey, star of--nudge-nudge, wink-wink--Forbidden Games. But it's a homage gone awry, like most big-screen evocations of the author: Stripped of the humour and pathos endemic to his form, Vonnegut comes off as at best nihilistic and at worst inorganic, which is exactly how one would describe Quintet. It's a baffling film whose ultimately hollow idiosyncrasies (like the iris effect that obscures every corner of the frame, or a thumbsucking motif) speak to Altman's hubristic streak ("He's creating a mystique of heroism out of emptied theatres," wrote Pauline Kael) more than they constitute an applicable allegory, although the old man's even older soul shines through Essex, the uncanny embodiment of Beckett's summary of human persistence: "I can't go on. I'll go on."
Fox debuts Quintet on the format in what is for Altman a characteristically gauzy and flashed-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sourced from a clean print; without a doubt, it's the best this movie has ever looked on the small screen. The accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo remix is sufficiently bassy during earthquake psych-outs, while dialogue is easy to make out (Altman for the most part steers clear of his overlapping hijinks this time around) and Tom Pierson's quasi-epic score resonates. CO-X Entertainment's aforementioned featurette, "Developing the World of Quintet" (15 mins.), catches up with Altman and son Stephen Altman, editor Dennis M. Hill, and associate producer Allan F. Nicholls, who dutifully recount the advantages and disadvantages of shooting inside Montreal's dilapidated '67 Expo. We also learn that the film's glacial pacing was a consequence of the bundled-up actors' inability to do anything but "trudge." (Alas, some murky chronology leaves the mystery of whether Quintet the board game--yes, Altman helped create a tie-in board game--begat Quintet the movie or vice-versa unsolved.) Trailers for Quintet, MASH, A Wedding, and A Perfect Couple round out the disc.
118 minutes; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Stereo), English DD 2.0 (Mono), French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono); English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Fox