In Louis Malle's captivating and philosophical 'My Dinner with André,' actor and playwright Wallace Shawn sits down with friend and theater director André Gregory at an Upper West Side restaurant, and the two proceed into an alternately whimsical and despairing confessional on love, death, money, and all the superstition in between. Playing variations on their own New York–honed personas, Shawn and Gregory, who also wrote the screenplay, dive in with introspective, intellectual gusto, and Malle captures it all with a delicate, artful detachment. A fascinating freeze-frame of cosmopolitan culture, My Dinner with André remains a unique work in cinema history.
‘My Dinner With Andre’ is one of those movies which is probably more discussed than actually seen, as is often the case with most art films. I recall watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert rave about this film during their old, PBS-based ‘Sneak Previews’ show, yet I opted out of catching it in my local art-house theater in favor of repeat big-screen viewings of ‘Superman II.” As the years went by, this highly acclaimed work by director Louis Malle fell off my “must-see-movies-before-I-die” bucket list... until now.
The story is straightforward and simple: Wallace Shawn is a modestly successful playwright and actor struggling to get by in his “hometown” populary known as New York City. He is invited to dinner at some hoity-toity restaurant (you know, the kind that doesn’t have pictures on the menu) by his colleague Andre Gregory, an accomplished theatre director. Wally initially dreads the meeting, based on rumors regarding Andre’s strange emotional state and questionable behavior despite his family responsibilities. When the two meet up, Andre brings his friend immediately up to date on his recent trips to foreign countries, interaction with different cultures, exposures to different lifestyles and creative endeavors. His observations initially focus on artistic accomplishment and angst, before moving more emotionally into one’s humanity. When Wally finally responds, it’s with a less pretentious, and more down-to-earth outlook, and the two politely probe into each other's ideas and beliefs. In the end, Wally goes back home, more thoughtful and perhaps inspired by his conversation with Andre.
Before addressing the didactic material, I should note there is much to appreciate about the ‘My Dinner with Andre.’ The cinematography is consistenly compelling, indoors and outside. Wallace takes us on a brief tour around early 1980s New York as he heads to his dinner date.The neighborhoods are presented in brief, but eye-catching images of graffiti-laden subways and dark blues and greys everywhere. Once inside the restaurant, the intimacy of their dinner is captured in close-ups and medium shots which make viewers as comfortable as the rest of the diners. The conversation flows freely and without distraction, with the deliberate exception of a stuffy waiter who is seems to bemused by the two. The characters speak with a realistic rhythm and natural delivery, despite the philosophical weight and academic complexity of their topics. In many movies, there are many times where dialogue sounds forced, or overly-mannered, no matter how expertly written. For example, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (a favorite of mine, incidentally) occasionally contained scenes which were arguably better suited to the stage than the silver screen. ‘My Dinner With Andre’ has no such faults.
As to the film itself, naturally, there is more to 'My Dinner with Andre' than that which any synopsis could describe, especially since both East Coast-based actors are working from their own screenplay. The topics covered can’t be simplified or resolved in any manner short of a lifetime, or at least within a semester or two of community college. Whether their conversation holds your attention or bores you to tears depends on how you feel about such verbal indulgences. I do recall reading a pithy review following its release which basically stated “it’s about two pretentious artsy-types who bullsh-t their way through dinner on subjects we’re supposed to find deep and meaningful.” While I can’t catergorize the movie in terms that crude and simplistic, I admit that I can’t appreciate this film nearly as much as others have. Call it an unreasonable reaction to hype, or a sign of the times, or the results of being more accustomed to (or corrupted by) the sex and violence of Tarantino-esque dialogue with lots of four–letter words and contrived witticisms, but ‘My Dinner With Andre’ doesn’t exactly thrill or enlighten me in any life-changing way. There’s no doubt that it is an original work for American cinema, and that it provides a lot of food for thought, especially during the last half when Wallace Shawn gets his chance to say a few words.
In the meantime, those who are more familiar with Pavel Chekhov of the USS Enterprise than Anton Chekhov of ‘Uncle Vanya’ or who have read more Stan Lee then Leo Tolstoy, may find the barrage of topics and references (surrealists, Antoine de Saint Exupery, Tibetan swaztikas, William Blake, Japanese monks, “painful prostrations,” Albert Speer just to name a scant few) unleashed by the soft-spoken Andre to be more than a bit much even for the most proficient of Wikipedia users. As Andre goes on and on about his visits to foreign countries and emotional experiences (in which uncontrollable crying seems to be a running theme), the cynic inside of me wanted to dismiss it all as just a hippy-dippy drug trip. Indeed, the first hour of the film made me wonder just how Wally was able to tolerate all this long-winded story-telling. I was more touched by Wally’s level-headed (though less daring) observations that climbing Mount Everest for inspiration simply isn’t practical for most people, and that enjoyment of life may include enjoying a cup of coffee or finding comfort in an electric blanket. Overall, their discussion is thought-provoking, but probably too esoteric to your average Joe Six Packer, and too trivial to the so-called academic elite. For mainstream movie-goers, however, 'My Dinner with Andre' succeeds in achieving an elevated standard of cinematic art without excess. By the end of the film, even I became much more involved and appreciative of their dinner conversation, though I would have probably ordered the chicken fried steak instead of the quail.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion Collection presents ‘My Dinner with Andre” in the Blu-ray format on a 50GB disc packaged in a clear keepcase with an accompanying booklet. The Blu-ray opens with a static menu and an audio track featuring murmurs of diners in a restaurant (definitely not Applebee’s). There are options to view the main feature by way of “Chapter” selections or by using a graphic horizontal “Timeline” (where quotes and topics are noted).
The Blu-ray packaging is elegantly designed, with a simple dinner plate setting on the front, text on the back, and no photos of the actors anywhere. It’s the kind classy and eye-catching presentation one has come to expect from a studio like Criterion.
The main feature is displayed in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 in 1080p AVC-encoded high definition. Modern-day audiences who are more accustomed to shiny and squeaky clean, CGI-based images may at first be taken aback by the sandstorm of grain which permeates this film. Given its careful digital mastering, it’s no surprise that this Blu-ray would reveal all the bare elements of the original 16mm source. There are random times when the grain becomes more apparent than in previous shots, especially during the frequent close-ups. However, the picture overall looks as solid and rich as one would want from film, with natural colors throughout the indoor scenes, and no evidence of dirt, scratches, fading, decay or anything else which might distract the viewer. The indoor scenes are filled with earth-tone colors, muted lighting and a general sense of warmth which is missing in today's films.
‘My Dinner with Andre’ is presented in Dolby Digital mono sound, where voices are heard clearly and distinctly, even through the most tinny of built-in television speakers. I detected no extraneous noise or artifacts during my viewing, where the volume was kept at a moderate level. Naturally, there is no real bass to speak of, and nearly every sound element is presented in the mid-range.
Playing this soundtrack through a more revealing audio system does reveal a hollow thinness in the recording of voices and an shrillness to the outdoor sound effects. The piano piece which ends the movie (“First Gymnopedie” by Erik Satie and played by Joseph Villa) however is presented quite nicely and gives the ending additional emotional weight. Despite the modest dynamic range and obvious lack of dimension to the sound, the single-channel audio is perfectly suited for a film of this nature, where intimacy is preferred over bombast.
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (HD 1:00:35) - Filmmaker Noah Baumbach interviews the lead actors (separately, unfortunately) in this 2009 featurette specially made by the Criterion Collection. Like the main feature, the interviews are relaxed but filled with details, covering obvious topics such as characterization, rehearsals and line deliveries. Each actor is given nearly equal screen time (naturally, Andre speaks first) and the sound is presented in Dolby Digital mono.
My Dinner With Louis (HD 52:13) - This episode of a BBC program produced in 1982 focuses on the movie and it’s director, Louis Malle. The program is hosted by Wallace Shawn, and runs for less than an hour. It spotlights many of the director’s classic films, and contains a wealth of studious information not typically found in most "behind the scenes" documentaries.
The show has been transferred to 1080p high definition, and presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. Overall, it looks surprisingly good for what appears to be an unrestored original source. Excerpts of the film shown in the BBC program are noticeably softer, yet less distracting when it comes to the grain. However, it’s clear that the Criterion Collection transfer of the movie is superior in every other respect.
‘My Dinner with Andre’ A Film By Louis Malle Booklet - Film journalist Amy Taubin offers an 11 page essay entitled “Long Strange Trips” which looks at the movie in-depth and obvious appreciation. Another article, “On the Origins of My Dinner with Andre” is composed of writings by Gregory and Shawn which prefaced the original screenplay. The remaining booklet gives a breakdown of the Blu-ray’s individual chapters, production credits, and digital transfer. The booklet has been designed to resemble a worn manuscript printed as a typewritten font, and adorned with illustrated hole punches and brads, ink which bleeds on the opposite page, as well as food and coffee stains. The presentation was convincing enough to prompt one of my kids to ask, “Eww, just how old is this book?”
While there is much to appreciate about 'My Dinner with Andre,' I wasn't able to resolve my own reaction to the degree such an acclaimed work probably deserves. Certainly, there are artistic elements which I feel are indulgent and trite, yet the cinematic execution is noticeably brilliant and some of the dialogue is absolutely inspired.
In the end, I'll probably need to revisit 'My Dinner with Andre' to determine whether my overall reaction is one of sober and astute observation, or just the ignorant reaction of a modern philistine.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.