Quintet (1979):

The most universally reviled of Robert Altman's misshapen late-'70s brood, though the director's stubborn fondness for it is more than the father doting over a sickly child -- the willful esoteria is just-add-water mystification (Sarris' dismissal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, "instant Ingmar," certainly applies here), yet with its own sustained modernist harshness and woozy beauty. The genre is sci-fi, but far, far away from the don't-worry-be-happy cheeriness of Lucas, the future as new, annihilating Ice Age, a bemused Paul Newman materializing in the artic endlessness. Pregnant, thumb-sucking bride Brigitte Fossey is but one in the Euro-cast stranded in the ice; others include Bibi Andersson, Victorio Gassman, Nina Van Pallandt, and Fernando Rey, all swathed in furs evoking Eskimos at a Renaissance fair. Not much to do after the apocalypse, so the survivors play the title's malefic backgammon, rules left unexplained and players made to skewer each other in the cold, the better to illustrate Altman's sardonic feel of debased survival. As befits the American renaissance's last crypto-existential bummer, the decade's various upheavals are never far from the generic clutter, with the troubled gaze courting dissonance -- a Vietnamese beggar and black children stare out of blowups from the Expo 67, from whose Toronto ruins Altman concocted the future. Gassman lays out the religion of the void, the "awareness of nothing," with Rey a Mephistopheles ultimately as helpless as his pawns, yet even shorn of the filmmaker's's dodgy humor, the film is still a humanist tract, a morning smile treasured amid the black dogs feasting on dumped corpses. Trudging into the unending tundra, Newman is trying to "find meaning where there's none," an act of doomed defiance that aligns him with McCabe, another Altman loser-hero who, refusing a degraded world's nihilism, is rewarded only with deathly purifying snow. Cinematography by Jean Boffety. Music by Tom Pierson.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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