Saturday, 14 December 2013


Last night I grabbed a screening of Robert Altman's 1979 film Quintet, which may well be the least seen and most misunderstood film in the director's eclectic cannon of work. The story set during a severe ice age, concerns a seal trapper named Essex (Paul Newman) who along with his wife travels to a dilapidated frozen city to find Essex's long lost brother. Whilst there, Essex unwittingly becomes involved with a community engaged with a mysterious board game know as "quintet", for which the stakes for the players are literally life and death...

One of the bleakest films of the 70's, if not the entire sci-fi genre, Quintet's failure to connect with audiences is hardly surprising given the film's slow pace and doggedly anti-commercial concerns which seem intent on alienating viewers from the outset. Even the conventions of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre - radiation-scarred mutants, urban ruins, the emergence of a hero, are mostly swept aside as Altman and his 3 writers tease out a sort of strange cerebral detective story which must have left audiences confused and frustrated. Although not known as a director of speculative science fiction, Altman suggested the film might well be taking place not just in some future time, but on another planet. Rather than have his cast speak in an alien language, Altman cleverly cast some well known European actors, among them, Fernando Ray, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson and Nina van Pallandt (in her 3rd of 4 films she made for the director), and each of their own distinct accents bring a certain otherworldliness to the dialogue. Even Paul Newman turns in what is perhaps the most low-key performance of his long career, his character has few dramatic moments and his dialogue is pared down to a minimum.

But patience (and perhaps second or third screening of the film) are rewarded by the director's absolute mastery of mood and atmosphere. The film was shot during a particularly cold winter, in and around the abandoned buildings constructed for Montreal's Expo '67, which by 1979 had sufficiently deteriorated to resemble a destroyed city, here augmented by a thick frosting of ice which covers every surface. Cinematographer Jean Boffety (who had previously shot Altman's Thieves Like Us) gives the film a unique visual texture by fogging the edges of the frame, a strange but effective device to convey the sub-zero temperatures, while Altman's innovative use of sound design extends to the film's soundtrack which employs ominous deep thunderous rumblings regularly heard throughout the film as the doomed city is encroached upon by glaciers churning up what's left of civilisation. Interestingly, the Quintet game, played on a pentagonal board with dice and various trinkets was developed by Kenner but due to the film's unpoparlity, the plan the shelved. As for the film, Quintet has slowly carved out a very minor cult following over the years and fans of contemplative science fiction and admirers of Andrzej Żuławski's The Silver Globe, and Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey would do well to seek the film out.


  1. I've never heard of this, though it certainly sounds interesting. I love how old building sites become such bleak, alien places during snowfall. I guess it's how strange it feels to see familiar things to us fall into such a state, it's the reason why I love Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' so much, apart from it being an incredible film, of course. I don't think any amount of CGI or 'set design' could make that film look any better.

  2. Hey JP ! Yep, I do love old dilapidated spaces and Stalker is absolutely a wonder to behold - legend has it that most of the cast and crew (including Tarkovsky) succumbed to some form of cancer from working at those locations, mainly at a disused power station somewhere in Estonia I believe... Funnily enough just the other day I discovered a book of factory photography by David Lynch and it looks very interesting

  3. Wes, I didn't realise that about the cast and crew... It looks really authentic as a location. I don't think I would want to sacrifice my health to film there, though. Thanks for the heads up on the book, will look into it.