Robert Altman 1979
is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film in which futuristic style and advanced technology are distinguished by their absence; in fact, the beards, long clothes and large hats worn by many of the characters suggest the denizens of a corrupt and muddy mediaeval city-state. Appearing at the end of the decade in which Altman made his name with crowded, expansive satirical comedies like M*A*S*H
and A Wedding
is slow, grim, taciturn and, for the most part, closed in not only by the walls of its crumbling citadel, but by misty-edged framing which makes the interior scenes appear as if through goggles imperfectly cleared of condensation. It is a film about a game, in which the wife of a losing player calmly and deliberately fries her own hand on a stove, and in which the only playful character becomes collateral damage thirty minutes in.
Essex (Paul Newman) and his young, pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) struggle across a frozen desert to the dying city, where a bullet train stands half buried in snow and where the dead are disposed of by leaving their bodies for packs of rottweilers. Society is dominated by the game of quintet, which seems to be popular everywhere since even Vivia, a seal-hunter's daughter who has never seen the city, knows how to play it. The game involves five players who sit around a pentagonal board, and a "sixth man" who sits out and manipulates the game before playing against the winner of the five. The board includes a region known as "limbo", and players who are knocked out are said to be "killed". It quickly becomes apparent that the city's elite quintet players, under the guidance of the affable adjudicator Grigor (Fernando Rey), have taken matters to an unpleasantly literal level.
One of the players, St Christopher (Vittorio Gassman) runs a charity mission where he delivers a sermon on the five ages of man, from the pain of birth to the finality of death, bounded by a sixth space which comprises the horror of nothingness. Humanity is dying out: Vivia is the youngest person and the only pregnant woman to appear in the city for as long as Essex' brother Francha and his friends can remember. She is promptly killed in a cowardly, indiscriminate bomb attack aimed at Francha, who has been selected for the regular quintet tournament in which the city is the game board and the killing is real. Although the film almost entirely avoids non-devious displays of emotion, Altman makes a poignant scene of Vivia's brief, wordless funeral in an icy, rushing river.
Taking on the identity of Redstone, another early loser in the tournament, Essex moves among the players and gradually comprehends the nature of what is possibly the last human society in the world. Confronting Grigor with the corpse of the runner-up, Essex discovers that, as St Christopher preached, the game is a reflection of the universe, in which the only possible prize is living to play again tomorrow. Like every other optimist before him, Grigor smiles and invites further play, while delicately shielding his nose from the stink of burning flesh.
was not a success either commercially or critically, and apparently remains largely unloved. I first saw it on television when I was far too young to understand it, and found it genuinely haunting. Between that first viewing and the next, many years later, I had few concrete recollections except for the opening sequence of Essex and Vivia tramping through the wilderness of the new ice age; but the chilly, murky atmosphere and the enigmatic game full of hidden, deadly meanings (although all the characters can play quintet, its rules are never fully explained to the viewer) have clung to me for decades.