Robert Altman's "Quintet" takes its name from a bizarre board game played by the characters in the film with an obsessiveness that rivals Vegas. The rules of the game are never quite made clear. It involves dice and little markers and a board shaped like a pentagon. At some point you "kill" your opponent by removing all of his markers. That's about as clear as the game gets, and it makes a fine analogue for the film as a whole. Altman's films often obscure or withhold crucial bits of information, but "Quintet" is so oblique at times that it hardly seems worth the trouble.
That's not to say there isn't any worth in the film, nor that any meaning cannot be drawn from it. Oddly enough, the reigning metaphor is pretty damn obvious. The film is set in the twilight of humanity, with snow and subzero temperatures everywhere as a new ice age encroaches upon the surviving city-dwellers. Those who are left huddle in their frigid enclaves and play their little game while doing their best to ignore the reality of the outside world. Ice age? Try Cold War, nuclear winter -- you see where this was meant to go. In fact, we can push this further (and in doing so, I'm going to be moving into SPOILER TERRITORY, so if you've not seen this yet and want to I'd suggest skipping to the next paragraph). At some point we realize that the game of Quintet is being ritualistically enacted in reality, with Paul Newman unwittingly involving himself in it. So what does Newman get when he wins the game? He escapes annihilation and gets to live another day. So that's it then: The game of Quintet is a war game. The last man (read: country) standing gets to call himself victor and hang around to fight more wars. The dead get scavenged to bits (quite literally, by dogs, in one of the film's most successful and uncomfortable recurring visual motifs). It's not bad as allegory, honestly.
However, it's not in the big picture but in bits and pieces that this film falls apart. Its major problem is also its biggest box-office asset. In both the character he's given to play and the performance he gives in playing it, Paul Newman goes a long way towards sinking this film all by himself. Strike One: The character, quite simply, is a sap. It takes him forever to catch on to the game, and even when he finally understands he still takes no action. Here is a man who has been warned about the supposed dangerousness of a Quintet player, and what does he do? He gets drunk and allows this player to take him back to his room. That his game doesn't end right there is a miracle; Newman's character is either the craftiest player in Quintet history or the luckiest, and the film doesn't do much to support the first possibility. Strike Two: The character, being oblivious, is thus given nothing to do. While the other involved parties are hustling and scheming and trying to figure out when their number will be up, Newman is in the dark. So he instead runs around trying to figure out what the hell he's gotten himself into, even though it should be obvious when the first corpse turns up. And it's not like a Kafka situation where the more he digs the less he knows -- the screenwriters just couldn't figure a way for him to be aware of the situation without making him smarter. This despite a central sequence about an hour in where he plays Quintet (the board game) and damn near has the rest of the film mapped out for him. Strike Three: Stuck with this unplayable character, Newman sheds his effortless charisma and retreats into himself, so his character seems pitched halfway between stoic and autistic. This is probably one of his worst performances, and between this and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" I think we should all be glad that he and Altman never worked together after this.
Not that Newman is alone in the grim-faced acting sweepstakes. However, of the four principals he looks the most uncomfortable, so he must bear the brunt of the blame. Bibi Andersson and Vittorio Gassman don't fare significantly better, but at least they know how to compose themselves under such stone-faced circumstances -- Andersson worked with Ingmar Bergman several times and Gassman honed his chops during the Italian post-war cinema years, so it's not like either of them haven't been here before. Fernando Rey, as the official Quintet referee, is the lucky one; since he's not playing the game, he's apparently the only one who's allowed to look like he's enjoying himself. I don't know if Rey ever played Satan, but he damn well should have at least once. His character, all smiles and explanations, hides his sadism behind a mask of impartiality. He provides the sparks of life that are needed to keep the narrative from stopping dead in its tracks.
Not that the screenwriters didn't try. As I mentioned before, much of this film is comprised of people (mostly Newman) running around from one frigid place to another frigid place with little in the way of explanation, leaving us to fill in the blanks. What bits of the film don't involve running usually feature people playing a board game. Given these elements, most people would be hard-pressed to create something that could hold anyone's attention. And, given this film's reputation, it apparently didn't do the job for many people. I don't think it's as bad as all that, partially because it is quite accomplished from a technical perspective. Altman takes the cold-n-sterile sci-fi approach popularized by Kubrick's "2001" and literalizes it, blanketing everything in snow and ice. You can feel the chill radiating off the screen. He's successful in setting a world where you might just want to hide away and amuse yourself to death. His sound design, always the most important aspect of his films, is beautifully rendered here in a minimal style far apart from his usual information-overload overlap. The early scenes in the information center, for example, are so precisely realized in terms of sound that one almost wants to stand up and cheer. The cinematography is striking as well (note the scene where Newman takes a body to the river and lets it float away before the dogs can take it), and there's even a sort of autocritique of the film's flaccid plotting built into the camerawork: Most of the scenes are shot with either frost (Altman apparently kept the sets at freezing temperatures for added realism) or Vaseline around the edges of the lens, so that it creates a kind of iris -- visual information in the center is clear, but the further you go out from there the hazier it gets. The film's lack of sense occasionally leans towards effectiveness too because it is so baldly meant as allegory that the narrative disinvolvement works on a certain level, giving the audience time to detach and think about what they're seeing. So I respect the film. But that doesn't make it easier to watch. Pity poor "Quintet": It has ambition. It just can't quite figure out how to make that ambition work to its advantage.