Perhaps the least seen but most talked about film of Robert Altman's career, Quintet is a somber science fiction tale that takes place after a nuclear holocaust has thrown the world into another Ice Age. A man named Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) are wandering the desolate, frozen landscape and attempting to find Essex's brother, Francha (Tom Hill). They finally locate him in a frozen city, occupied by a number of apocalyptic survivors who who pass their time playing a mysterious game called "Quintet." No one is able to explain just how it is played, but Grigor (Fernando Rey) appears to act as the referee, and the stakes of the game are unusually high - losing means being thrown out into the snow and devoured by Rottweilers. Francha is soon killed, not as a casualty of Quintet per se, but for playing an assassination game on the side to relieve his own ennui. As 'collateral damage,', Vivia and the rest of Francha's family are soon extinguished as well. Essex is not happy with the way they've been rubbed out, but as he attempts to seek revenge, he is only drawn deeper into the lethal competition of Quintet. While this picture received negative reviews on its initial release, in retrospect it is worth noting that the photography (by Jean Boffety) and production design (by Leon Ericksen) are beautiful and striking, and that the film boasts one of Altman's strongest international casts, including Vittorio Gassman, Nina Van Pallandt, and Bibi Andersson, as befits its European-art-movie ambiance; the influence of the equally opaque, allegorical, game-playing Last Year at Marienbad (1961) is especially strong.
by Mark Deming synopsis