Another Altman Experiment

You've got to love Robert Altman - even if you don't love his movies. He's willing to try just about anything. Sometimes it works, often to great success, and sometimes it simply doesn't.

Here we have Altman's run at sci-fi. A stark frozen world is the setting, the result of some ecological catastrophe. The remaining inhabitants just seem to be marking their time until they freeze and get eaten by dogs.

Seriously, eaten by dogs. It seems like at least half the outside shots involve dogs, either chomping away at a body, or apparently in search of one to chomp. In a fairly transparent production decision, the breed involved stands out quite well against the white landscape, one clearly not well adapted to the current climate.

Paul Newman and his pregnant companion trudge to what they call a city these days, which most resembles the interior of a shopping mall built into a freezer that should have been de-iced a decade ago. He meets up with his brother and family, and minutes later everyone but him dies in an explosion, while he's out buying wood.

Newman goes private investigator. He discovers his brother was involved in some big game of Quintet, where the stakes for some reason are high.

This is where it breaks down for me. The rules of the game are purposefully vague, which is alright. What doesn't work, as far as I'm concerned, are the characters and their motivations. I can see Altman's view of an insular, ascetic world where people don't have much to live for, but it's neither compelling nor realistic.

It doesn't help that the metaphors are completely transparent, especially where the number five is concerned. For me, Altman blasts right through the barrier between suspension of disbelief and disbelieve-all-you-like.

The set design and scenery is wonderful... it seems like a lot of time was spent on that (unless, of course, they found an actual shopping mall). And I have to give credit to Altman for actually shooting in the cold. Most movies like this, anyone who's lived in a cold climate will pick up that it's actually not that cold, but here we keep seeing the breath of the characters, and a sense that the big, layered costumes are there for a reason. What got old to me very fast though, as the old vaseline-around-the-edge-of-the-lens trick they use to reinforce the cold climate feeling, like looking through a steamed up window. It seems like every single interior shot has it, and overuse of such a trick, particularly with the way Altman moves the camera, starts to feel really artificial.

I'd put Quintet well down the required list for Altman fans, and perhaps just a longshot for everyone else. On the surface, it's one of the least accessible (and more challenging) of his films, but with few of the rewards.

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