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QUINTET

USA, 1979 (MIFF 1981)

Director: Robert Altman

First, a peek at the initial events of the film. The seal he hunts now being extinct, Essex is persuaded by his girl. Vivia. to return to the city he left ten years ago with the Earth paralyzed by a new ice age. In the snowbound city, where the ageing citizens die like flies and are eaten by dogs, Essex locates his brother Francha, who is amazed by Vivia's youth and by the fact that she is pregnant. In celebration, Francha proposes a rou nd of Qu intet. the prevailing board game in which the object is to "kill" your opponents: and during Essex's momentary absence, a bomb is thrown into the room, killing everybody The grief-stricken Essex pursues the killer only to find him with his throat cut. In the dead man's pocket are Quintet tokens belonging to Francha and a list of six names ...

Quintet had one of the most unpleasant receptions ever accorded to a piece of Altman's work ("an unoriginal, lumberingly obvious. altogether hokey script, coupled with a visual and audial atmosphere so overpowering that one wishes to forgive the film its lack of narrative integrity out of a respect for what it does to the perception and the nerves" — Robert C. Cumbow, Movietone News), but what must be faced is the strength of its critical support from the establishment Thus the film has come in for the following praise:

"Framed as a statement about the human condition in presumably some sort of post-nuclear disaster area, Quintet certainly courts the derision which has been heaped upon it as being either dismayingly empty or horribly pretentious On the other hand. if one examines the texture of the work rather than the surface, another film entirely begins to emerge, much more dependent on the sort of visceral perceptions Altman hoped to encourage by trying to ensure that audiences came to the film unprepared and free of preconceptions."

Tom Milne Monthly Film Bulletin

"In the attempts to find an explanation for Quintet, it has been likened to Images, the 'art-house' film Altman made at a time when he was thought to be one of the pacesetters (M*A*S*H, McCabeand Mrs. Miller) in the New Hollywood genres Images has definitely entered the record as an aberration: one of those essays in European sophistication by ambitious American directors, who in the process forgo the sophistication of their native cinema (all the compressed emotional. thematic and symbolic meaning of a highly-evolved narrative tradition) for the sake of the literal representation of an 'idea' Altman turned out a Laingian case history which held up a mirror, in fact all sorts of reflecting surfaces, to a disaffected personality.

But Quintet is cannier than that It reveals the awareness of post-Nashville Altman that art (or truth, or life) is not something created by avoiding Hollywood cliches — the confidence of this period is also that he is no longer in danger of being overwhelmed by the old Hollywood — but an elusive or illusory goal that sustains the work in progress but is a doubtful commodity once it is complete In this respect, it is almost anti-Images — since it declares the 'art' form a null and void pretension — and one of the purest of American films It is a story without a subject, a form without meaning. For Altman. also, it has a kind of purity: if A Wedding positively sits up and begs to be liked, Quintet sits with its back to the audience and defies them to stay. It has stars, of course, but they are scarcely allowed to act in a way with which audiences could be expected to identify

This makes it, along with Three Women and (to a qualified extent) Buffalo Bill and the Indians Altman's most audacious work "

Richard Combs Sight and Sound

"Robert Altman has turned out his most fantastic film since Images, creating a completely imaginary world on the brink of extinction. There are two metaphors here — Quintet, a game resembling existential backgammon, and the Ice Age. a state of being that goes beyond the Canadian setting to describe contemporary feelings The international cast — Paul Newman, Vittono Gassman. Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson, Brigitte Fossey. and Nina Van Pallandt — mingle more smoothly than one might expect despite their often awkward, pretentious dialogue What redeems this film is its immense physical authority and Altman's mesmerizing camera style Newman plays a straight heroic lead, with none of the distancing irony of Buffalo Bill The result is an engrossing entertainment, almost in spite of its bleak spirit."

Andrew Sarris Village Voice

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