Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Quintet (Robert Altman, 1979)
Robert Altman's 1979 post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature Quintet stands as somewhat of an oddity within the late, great director's sizable body of work. Often dismissed by many as an ill-advised blight on the tail end of arguably Altman's most distinguished and prolific decade (the 70's saw from the director such masterpieces as Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and M*A*S*H), there nevertheless remains a staunch contingent of Altman devotees who hail the film as an under appreciated masterpiece. I've been a great admirer of Altman since I first watched Nashville when I was younger, and have since slowly worked my way through the majority of his more notable films, finding a lot to love in his quirky, genre-crossing career. After watching - and being blown away by - his 1973 mindbender 3 Women for the first time late last year, I became quite interested in delving into some of the great auteur's lesser known work. The polarizing nature of Quintet, combined with its out-there premise and fantastic cast (Paul Newman, Bibi Andersson, and the great Fernando Rey) has always sparked a fair amount of curiosity in me, and so getting into an Altman-mood (as I'm prone to do once a year or so), I finally decided to pop the film in and see what's what.
In short, Quintet didn't work for me. At all. But before I go into the problems I had with it, let me first provide a quick outline of the plot: The movie opens up sometime in the distant future, with two figures traversing a barren, snowy landscape. The couple are Essex (Newman) and his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey). They are traveling to a settlement where Essex grew up. They arrive in the small, ice covered village, where Essex quickly reunites with his brother. The people in this mysterious place do nothing but play 'Quintet', a complex game involving a pentagon board, rocks, dice, and animal figurines. One day while Essex is out shopping in the market, his brother and wife are blown up in what appears to be a random terrorist act. Essex spies a man fleeing the scene, chases him down, and subsequently gets drawn into an overly-complex plot involving a group of hardcore Quintet players, including Ambrosia (Andersson) and Grigor (Rey), who don absolutely silly costumes that give them the appearance of thrift-store genies, and who hold secret underground Quintet tournaments that may very possibly be incorporating real life murders into the gameplay.
So there's that. The first thing I should probably bring up is a very audacious choice Altman made in regard to the visuals. You know that effect where vaseline is smeared around the camera's lens, giving the edges of the frame a hazy, out-of-focus texture? You've probably seen it in countless dream sequences from other movies. Here, Altman opts to film the entire movie in this way, in an effort to (I'm guessing) further cast a dreamy, hallucinogenic effect over a premise already filled with ambiguities and surreal touches. A little of that goes a long way, and though it does work well in adding to the moods and ambiance of the shots that take place outside in the snowy landscapes, these moments are few and far between. For the most part, all this gimmick manages to do is completely undermine the strongest aspect of the film, that being the wonderfully interesting set design. The unnamed settlement where the film takes place is split up into 5 sectors, each one inhabited with dilapidated old buildings such as casinos and hotels, once opulent in their prime, now in filthy shambles. There is an earthy splendor to the look of the film, and you can almost smell the decay and grime that has settled into the various structures that make up this village. The most impressive set is simply called the 'Information Center', a claustrophobic location comprised of heavy, swinging glass walls, all intricately carved with symbols and maps and various colors. But as good as the film looks, it's almost impossible to enjoy this, as that damn vaseline effect continuously obfuscates the image and keeps most of these interesting details from creeping into the frame. For as much time as their is in this movie where absolutely nothing is happening on screen, it would've been lovely to at least have been able to admire the details of the wonderful set, but even that's difficult to do, and I can't tell you the number of times I was taken out of the movie by this frustration. The whole vaseline trick ends up not only being a failed gimmick; it becomes an unpleasantly obstructive one.
As hinted at in the above paragraph, another fundamental problem is that the movie is just simply an interminable bore. The narrative plods along at a sluggish pace, and as the Newman character slowly becomes involved deeper and deeper with the Quintet tournament and it's players (which doesn't occur until halfway through the film's two hours), the plot loses all coherency as the murders and questions pile up, and the conspiracy becomes increasingly muddled to the point where it's impossible to follow (and not in a charming, The Big Sleep-kind of way). While there is a fair amount of interesting ambiguity present (the nature of the planet's current condition; the mysterious past of the Newman character; and the history of the game itself), the film crosses the line from ambiguity to willful confusion as it fills much of the dialogue in the second half with mumbo-jumbo involving the complex rules of the Quintet game; rules which the film never bothers to flesh out at all, leaving the viewer (or at least me) a disinterested and passive spectator as the whole mess unfolds. All the while, Newman delivers a spectacularly bland performance, so void of energy and emotion is his Essex character that it reaches nearly comical heights, such as in the scene where Newman dashes back to his brother's home after hearing the deadly bomb go off, only to find the dead bodies of his pregnant wife and dear brother. After gazing intently at the carnage for a few seconds, the character bends down, picks up a flimsy stick, snaps it over his knee, and let's out a frustrated huff of cold breath. That's it. I don't know whether Altman's direction had a large impact on the acting, or if Newman simply felt uncomfortable with the material, but whatever the case may be, it is a listless performance, severely disengaged from the rest of the film.
I don't want to be entirely negative though, so I will point out a few nice touches that I admired along the way (aside from the aforementioned awesome set design). Altman makes great use of a pack of ominous black dogs who are inexorably tied to death throughout the movie. Newman first spies the dogs as he approaches the village in the beginning, while they are crowded around and feasting on a corpse, a small moment that immediately infuses the film with a sense of dread. The dogs are often seen prancing around somewhere on the periphery of the screen, and seem to always pop out of little nooks and crannies as soon as fresh blood is spilled. There is a great, evil little moment where Newman is carrying his wife's dead body, and when he briefly lays it down in the snow, not a second later does one of the dogs pop out of seemingly nowhere to take survey. They are effectively used in little moments like this all during the movie, and serve as a potent, constant reminder of the death that permeates this territory. I also thought it was really interesting when the film began to explore the nihilistic philosophies and principles of the Quintet players, how they view the game as the last form of intelligent expression, and how it serves for some merely as a means of validating the thrill of life. It's an aspect I wish the film would have paid more attention to, and perhaps if it had focused more on this and not as much on the incomprehensible logistics of the game itself, we could have been in some really interesting territory. Altman was really thinking outside of the box with this one, and I am of the mind that no director can ever be criticized for that. It just unfortunately doesn't work in this case. As it stands, I have to call Quintet as I saw it: an uncharacteristically murky, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying offering from one of the greatest of all American directors.