It is the future, and the Earth is in the grip of a devastating ice age. After spending time in the South hunting seal until their numbers dwindled, Essex (Paul Newman) and his younger wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) make their way across the snowbound landscape towards a city. At one point, Vivia stops and calls for Essex to look up: there's a goose flying by overhead, a rare sight that she marvels at. Onwards, and they find shelter for the night, but the next day the city they've searched for comes into view through the white haze. However, they could be making a mistake coming here to look for Essex's brother, as all anyone is interested in is the game of Quintet - and that game could turn deadly...
It's easy to see why Quintet didn't take off when it was released at the end of the nineteen seventies, especially after science fiction had become synonymous with the wham-bam excitement of Star Wars. If there's anything that this film was not it was fun, and it stays resolutely depressing and laughter-free throughout its long two hour running time. Its pace is so deliberate that the tension of, say, a contemporary like Alien is missing, preferring to convey a stifling atmosphere of a world in terminal decline, where hope is forgotten and the simple pleasures of the game, coupled with the rather more complicated pleasures of killing off your opponents, are all that remain.
According to director Robert Altman, who wrote the script with Patricia Resnick and Lionel Chetwynd with story input from Frank Barhydt, the board game that the film depicts was actually played by fans who made their own board, but exactly how they worked out what the rules are from this is a mystery. The whole story is like watching a game where you don't know the rules, and even when they're explained rather perfunctorily at the end, it garners the response, oh, is that all? There is entertainment of a sort to be found in the realisation of the future environment, with an all pervading chill and dogs eating human corpses in the streets (although the Vaseline on the lens representing cold is a bit much), where you can understand why the characters would wish to lose themselves in their pasttime.
But it's all good fun until someone loses a life, taking the game far too seriously. Essex, with Newman appropriately subdued throughout, locates his brother thanks to a room containing a complicated array of maps and codes which is lying neglected now, but which he recalls how to use. Once his brother recognises him, he welcomes Essex and Vivia in, he and his family marvelling at seeing a woman so young as the general population is ageing into extinction. When they see that under her rolls of clothes Vivia is pregnant, a feeling that has not touched their hearts for years settles over them: hope.
Don't worry, it doesn't last. A turn of events sees Essex forced to strike out alone and work out the reasoning behind the murderous version of Quintet that some are playing, and on finding a list of names in the pocket of a killer, he becomes the film's detective, moving amongst jaded characters who are reluctant to explain their place in the conspiracy. These include respected European thespians Bibi Andersson, Fernando Rey and Vittorio Gassman as a preacher to the poor, but no one really stands out. Quintet seems more like a product of the science fiction from the other end of the seventies, where downbeat efforts like THX 1138 and Soylent Green were being made, although granted not to the success of the aforementioned Star Wars. With a mood of lovelessness, moral bankruptcy and bleak prospects throughout, this film won't cheer you up, but it does draw you in if you have the patience. Music by Tom Pierson.
Maverick director responsible for some of the most distinctive American films of the last 35 years. After serving in the military during the 1940s, Altman learnt his filmmaking craft by making advertisements and training films before breaking into TV, where he worked throughout the sixties. Altman's breakthrough feature was MASH in 1970, an acerbic Oscar-winning Korean war comedy that introduced his chaotic, overlapping narrative style. Throughout the seventies, Altman turned in a series of acclaimed films including Images, Brewster McCloud, California Split, The Long Goodbye, the western McCabe & Mrs Miller and the brilliant musical drama Nashville. The 1980s proved to be less successful, as Altman struggled in a decade of slick blockbusters to raise funds for his idiosyncratic movies; nevertheless, the likes of Popeye, Fool for Love and Vincent & Theo were all flawed but interesting work.
Altman returned to the A-list of directors with 1992's cameo-laden Hollywood satire The Player, which was followed by the superb ensemble drama Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Since then until his death Altman turned in almost a film a year, which ranged from the great (Gosford Park, The Company) to the less impressive (Dr T & The Women, The Gingerbread Man), but always intelligent and unusual. At over 80, Altman remained an outspoken anti-Hollywood figure who showed no sign of slowing down right until the end, with his last film A Prairie Home Companion released in 2006.