Monday, October 8, 2012

Apocalypse Snore: "Quintet" (1979)

Ice. Snow. The constant wind. Young women carrying children are celebrated. Wild dogs roam the tundra, eating the constant supply of the dead. Everyone drinks, everyone is depressed, and everyone waits to die. This is the world of Robert Altman's film "Quintet," or as we call it in North Dakota- "mid-January."

Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant girlfriend Vivia (a cute Brigitte Fossey) arrive at a frozen city seeking Essex's brother, Francha (Tom Hill). In this futuristic ice age, the happy reunion is short lived as someone bombs the family, killing everyone but the absent Essex. Essex chases the assassin, but St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman) finds him first and kills him. Essex finds the body, and steals his belongings, assuming the man's identity- Redstone. This also brings the only decently shot scene, as Essex saves Vivia's body from the pack of dogs by placing it in a running river.

Essex enters the local Quintet tournament. Quintet is a game that looks like a combination of Backgammon and Yahtzee, yet seems more boring than either. The game's adjudicator, Grigor (Fernando Rey), knows Essex is an impostor, but allows him in anyway. Essex also meets Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), and the two generate a spark (apparently, Essex's grieving process over losing Vivia and their unborn child is approximately a week).

Soon, men dressed like a road company version of "The Private Life of Henry VIII" skulk around and wax idiotic on the meaning of life, and life as a game, and the game of life, and off one another. Apparently, the game of Quintet does not just take place at the casino tables.

For a science fiction/action/mystery, you would be hard pressed to find either genre done well. There is no basis in time for the story to take place. The characters use items in the future without explaining them to the audience, but the device does not work like it did in "Soylent Green." The action is minimal, two graphic yet unconvincing throat slittings and a stilted chase on a glacier. There is no mystery, since everyone seems to know everyone else's hidden agendas. You do not have to be Hercule Poirot to figure out what is going on, yet Altman treats his heavy story like it was brand new to all of us.

Paul Newman seems trapped in this film. He reads his lines fast, as if that would satisfy Altman's penchant for improvisation. There are some scenes of dialogue where Newman simply listens or observes, and the dumbfounded look on his face says it all. Gassman and Rey look too much alike, I kept trying to keep them straight. Andersson plays the helpful love interest too sincerely, so you know she is hiding something and it is just a matter of (a long) time before Essex catches on.

The dialogue here is stupid. The film tries so hard to be so deep and so meaningful, and it is not. An English major could have a field day sorting through all the allegories, metaphors, similes, double meanings, and other hoo-haa, but these elements are so surface and glib, they do not warrant such rapt attention. The loud, unintentionally funny Tom Pierson musical score (dig that flute!) mostly serves as a device to wake up a snoozing audience.

"Quintet" was filmed in Montreal, Canada. The barren location is the only thing right here. This is a boring, pretentious, directionless film. For the record, I fell asleep twice while watching this. "Quintet" is glacial. (*) out of five stars.