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I have wanted to see Robert Altman’s post-apocalypse fantasy Quintet since it was released in 1979. It bombed so thoroughly that I never had the chance. I was mildly surprised to see it available for rental at iTunes, but certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity.

The idea of Altman directing stylized fantasy seems so out of character that it’s hardly surprising even supportive critics like Pauline Kael panned the movie. His talent was for inspiring actors to do their best work in naturalistic settings. His characters are thoroughly grounded in a realistic texture around them. The only precedent for the stylization in Quintet at this point in his career would have been the period settings of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (also designed by Leon Ericksen), which was still pretty Realistic in style. Creating a world from scratch was just not one of Altman’s talents. (As he proved all over again with Popeye.)

In Quintet, the world has been reduced to a frozen wasteland. Waiting for the final freeze, people have nothing to do but play a game, called “Quintet,” which involves killing the other participants. The game has no point but to survive, so when Essex (Paul Newman) stumbles into playing when trying to find out who killed his brother, he has a task to stay alive himself.

That schematic description pretty thoroughly captures the “action” of the film, which manages to be repetitive, ponderous, implausible and impenetrable—but not exactly pointless. Every once in a while, a film seems to have been made only because it could be, when a director with some half-formed ideas suddenly had the opportunity to realize them. In Quintet’s case, Altman was probably excited by the chance to use the “Man and his World” settings from Expo ’67, which form the backdrop to most of the action. The resulting images may not make much sense, but their jagged, prismatic disorientation is shamelessly beautiful and probably the real reason for making the movie.

With people engaged in a game of obscure significance in chilly settings, maybe Altman thought this was his Last Year at Marienbad. The difference is that Marienbad is as abstract and formal as the game in the film. Altman still wants to tell a story, but it’s one not worth telling. More facile than profound, his limitations were never more exposed than when he thought he was thinking.  The sub-philosophical gibberish the characters pronounce between throats being slit and bombs going off might sound Very Heavy to the easily impressed. It is nonetheless difficult not to wince as Fernando Rey and Bibi Andersson twist their accents around gems like “You play for…the heat of the adrenalin rushing through your body. Life can only be felt when Death is near.” A gnomic aphorist Altman was not.

Still, for all the pretentious strain, I can imagine watching it again, just because its rock candy fragmentation is so perversely exquisite. If Quintet is a disaster, at least it’s a handsome, unique disaster.

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