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My Dinner With Andre
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn
Stars: Wallace Shawn (Wally Shawn), Andre Gregory (Andre Gregory), Jean Lenauer (Waiter), Roy Butler (Bartender)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
My Dinner With Andre Criterion Collection DVD
My Dinner With Andre By any stretch of the imagination, My Dinner With Andre was a risky endeavor. It is, after all, a nearly two-hour film that consists of little more than two men, who were once close friends but haven’t seen each other in years, talking over dinner in an elegant New York restaurant. The film’s simple, first-person title summarizes the entirety of the plot, yet it also refuses (purposefully, I would imagine) to capture the film’s densely woven thematic depths and dramatic intricacies. What makes the film so intriguing and so beguiling and so utterly wonderful is the way it slowly reveals itself, uncoiling in ways that don’t produce dramatic fireworks, but rather gradual realizations about the nature of life and love and happiness and contentment, even as it refuses to end with any kind of resolution beyond a character noting that he will have much to talk about, which is the ultimate point of the film itself. As Gregory put it in a later interview, his primary goal in making the film was to “activate people to talk.”

The two men at dinner are Wally and Andre, who are played by the two men who wrote the screenplay that was based on hours and hours of their own tape-recorded conversations: playwright and actor Wallace Shawn and experimental theater director Andre Gregory. Shawn is the more immediately recognizable of the two because of his work as a film actor; at the time of the film’s release, he was best known for a small role in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), but has since come to be identified most often with his role as the hilariously egocentric Vizzini in The Princess Bride (1987) and as the much put-upon speech teacher in Clueless (1995). With his short, stout stature, round balding head crowned with bushes of unkempt hair, and stylishly frumpy clothing, Shawn is the immediate visual opposite of Andre Gregory, who cuts a striking, birdlike figure with his long nose, lean body, and sharp eyes. They make a great visual mismatch, which gives the film’s misleadingly simple setup a sense of subtle aesthetic intrigue that underscores their ultimately contradictory views of life.

Much of what is discussed over dinner reflects the actual lives of Shawn and Gregory, although parts are fictionalized and reworked to fit the loose requirements of narrative and thematic development. Wally narrates the film, which opens with him walking to the subway station to catch a train to an upscale restaurant where he is to meet Andre for dinner. As he explains, Wally has not seen Andre for five years, during which time there have been rumors that the latter has gone off the deep end; thus, there is an immediate tension in the setup, as Wally is dreading the dinner and the awkwardness it might entail.

And, while the opening passages of their reunion are fraught with genial inelegance and superficial small talk, it isn’t long before they start getting into the meat of the film’s philosophical heart, which is started by Andre’s extensive descriptions of his world travels in search of experience, which led him to such far-out places as a remote Polish forest, where he did experimental theater pieces under the moonlight with a troupe of 40 willing actors, and Montauk, where he was buried alive for a “death-and-rebirth” ceremony. Andre speaks with measured, but feverish intensity about his experiences, and while Wally spends nearly the first half of the film doing little more than responding to Andre’s stories and declarations (sometimes with genuine curiosity, sometimes with what appears to be feigned interest, and sometimes with incredulity tinged with embarrassment for his old friend), he eventually begins to come out of his shell and offer a counterpoint to Andre’s contention that life resides in such wild experiences. Rather, Wally argues that life is the everyday, the humdrum, the mundane that we invest with meaning because it provides us comfort and happiness.

Their debate in many ways evokes the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the inherent conflicts of a man who insisted that extensive traveling was not necessary for spiritual enlightenment, yet is most famous for living in isolation in the woods. Andre embodies Thoreau’s contention, as written in Walden, that “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” Wally argues that such cares and labors, literalized for him in the form of warm electric blankets and toting his plays from agent to agent, has dignity and meaning. It is an argument that must, of course, remain unresolved, but it provides a spark that is impossible to extinguish once the final credits are rolling.

My Dinner With Andre was directed by Louis Malle, the great French filmmaker whose first films in the late 1950s presaged the development of the French New Wave. While he had dabbled in many genres and spent much of the 1960s making documentaries, when he directed My Dinner With Andre Malle was working in Hollywood, having made the controversial Pretty Baby (1978) with Brooke Shields as a child prostitute and the thoughtful, austere crime drama Atlantic City (1981). Malle’s best films always displayed a fine humanist touch, and his willingness to experiment made him a perfect choice to bring Shawn and Gregory’s idea for a conversation-over-dinner movie to life. Shot quickly on a soundstage in 16mm, the film has a close, intimate ambiance that makes you feel like the personal pronoun in the title refers not to Wally but to you. For those who are not familiar with these two characters and the insular world of New York theater they inhabit, the film will likely not have the same levels of meaning and humor, but I doubt there are any thoughtful viewers who will not find themselves drawn into Wally and Andre’s fascinating dinner conversation, pulled one way or the other as the two men debate the essence of what it means to live.

My Dinner With Andre Criterion Collection 2-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    Supplements
  • New video interviews with actors André Gregory and Wallace Shawn by filmmaker and friend Noah Baumbach
  • “My Dinner with Louis,” an episode from the BBC program Arena, in which Shawn interviews director Louis Malle
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Gregory and Shawn for the published screenplay
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 23, 2009

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    My Dinner With Andre is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 in a new high-definition digital transfer taken from the original 16mm A/B negative. Thus, the film has a slightly rough feel, suffused with grain and a hint of softness inherent to the medium in which it was shot. That being said, I imagine that the transfer on this disc does justice to the intended look of the film, which enhances its intimate qualities. And you can’t say that Criterion didn’t do everything in their power to get the image to its best possible quality given that they employed four different programs--Da Vinci’s Revival, MTI’s DRS system, Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system to remove dirt and debris, correct flicker, and reduce noise. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original 16mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored with Pro Tools HD, resulting in a pleasantly clean soundtrack that emphasizes (obviously) the dialogue.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The second disc in the this two-disc set contains two meaty supplements. The first is a 48-minute set of interviews conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Recorded separately, Gregory and Wallace provides plenty of fascinating reminiscences about how the film came to be and the actual process of making it (my favorite bit is the moment when Gregory notes the irony that he had an electric blanket on his legs for most of the filming because the soundstage on which they shot was freezing cold). In addition, the disc includes a 52-minute episode of the BBC series Arena title “My Dinner With Louis.” Recorded and broadcast in 1982, it features Wallace Shawn interviewing director Louis Malle in Atlantic City, which allows the great director to discuss the entirety of his career up until that point. The thick insert booklet, which is cleverly designed to look like onion skin typing paper, contains an excellent new essay by critic Amy Taubin and Gregory and Shawn’s prefaces to the published screenplay.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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