I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, and already I have the pleasure of writing about one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. And yes, it is a pleasure to do so; I love bad movies. Unfortunately though, “Quintet” (1979) is not as fun as, for example, “Plan 9 from Outer Space” directed by Ed Wood.
A little background first: I love postapocalyptic fiction, books and stories about the end of the world. I like movies of this genre too, things like “The Road,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Zombieland,” “2012,” you get the idea. Now mind you, I don’t actually want the world to end. But I find the subject fascinating. So yesterday I came across this movie, “Quintet.” The description said something like: Set in a future ice age, Earth’s survivors spend their time playing a board game called Quintet. Some inhabitants play the game with living pieces, and only the winner survives. I was hooked.
“Quintet” was directed by the great Robert Altman and stars Paul Newman. The cast also includes Bibi Anderson, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey and Brigette Fossey.
The opening shot of the movie looks promising: a long slow pan across an arctic landscape until we see two figures walking in the distance. Pretty much, from that point, the movie devolves into mush. The two people walking are Essex (Newman) and his pregnant wife Vivia (Fossey). They’re returning to “the city.” No reason is given for the return to the city except for when Vivia says to Essex, “You left the city because there was nothing for you there, and now you are returning. Don’t you think that’s funny?” Later, Essex himself says that he doesn’t know why they’ve returned, to which Vivia replies, “It’s a place to go–that’s what you said.” This, pretty much, is about as scintillating as this movie gets.
Rather than belabor this, let me just list all of the things that are wrong with “Quintet”: The dialogue is bad; some of it is unintelligible; most of it has nothing to do with anything relevant. Here’s a winning exchange: “Essex, you’ll freeze to death.” His reply: “You may know that–I don’t.” The music is often loud, distracting and counter to what is happening visually. By the end of the movie, I’d grown to hate the sound of harsh strings accompanied by timpani drums. The costumes, while appropriately post-apocalyptic, look fresh off the seamstress’ table in the wardrobe department. (If the characters just hiked for miles, why do their clothes look so pristine and new?) Every scene is shot with a soft hazy blur around the edge of the frame. Why? I have no idea. It’s as if the entire movie is a corny dream sequence or hallucination. It was maddening. The “quintet” board game that every one is so obsessed with playing seems excruciatingly boring. It basically involves rolling dice and moving rocks around on a table. Yet, we’re supposed to believe that in a future ice age where there is no hope–people actually want to play this game. The cast is talented, but you’d never know it from watching them in this movie. Only Bibi Anderson musters-up anything resembling an actual performance. There’s no plot to speak of: something about a list of people being killed, the board game, and Essex trying to save someone or solve a mystery. But it really doesn’t matter.
On the positive side, I personally like long camera shots without dialogue. There are a few of those in the movie. The film also has the look of genuine cold–that’s real fog coming out of their mouths when they speak. Supposedly the movie was shot in a now-dismantled “Man and His World” pavilion from the Expo 67 World’s Fair held in Canada. Although to be honest, I would have guessed that the set was built inside a huge frozen foods warehouse. One small treat is that the film is filled with shots of huge photographs which were supposedly part of the original Expo exhibit. I also sort of liked the gruesome notion of dogs everywhere in the film eating the dead.
Of course Robert Altman is a great filmmaker. I also have a high regard for Paul Newman and the rest of this international cast. But I suppose even talented people make missteps sometimes.
I’m glad I saw the film. It’s fun to watch bad movies. But perhaps the worst thing about “Quintet” is its length. “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is fun because it’s short. “Quintet” goes on forever. Even the final scene of the movie goes on interminably (SPOILER follows): One of the characters dramatically looks on as Essex leaves the city alone. Cross fade to Essex walking away through the snow, his image getting smaller as the distance grows. Dissonant music plays, then he fades from view. Cymbals crash. Then white snow and silence, the wind blows. End credits. (Finally.)
Rating: 1 out of 4 stars
1979, Rated R, 118 minutes, Sci-Fi, Mystery