MY DINNER WITH ANDRE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Director: Louis Malle
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: June 23, 2009
“Things just very rarely go haywire now. If you're just operating by habit, then you're not really living.”
I don’t think a single film has epitomized the words “art house film” better than My Dinner With Andre. It’s a definitive illustration of a film that goes completely outside the box. Prior to its release in 1981, I don’t think there had existed a more experimental exercise in cinema.
I had never before been subjected to a film that basically consisted of two actual people having a conversation in a single setting. The only other film I can think of that used a similar idea is Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. It’s an experiment that isn’t used often, and after watching My Dinner With Andre for the first time, I kind of see why that is.
The reason is simple; an approach like this to a film is a hard one to pull off, especially for a two hour running time. Luckily, French auteur Louis Malle knew how to make it work. Though I don’t quite think the film itself to be at the level of the immense praise it has received over the years, I still acknowledge its unique qualities and think it is a fascinating experience.
Though it’s not based on a stage play, the screenplay comes directly from Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in the theater community. Shawn was a playwright early in his career, who later became a noted character actor, appearing in films such as The Princess Bride, Radio Days and Toy Story. Gregory has spent the majority of his career as a theater director in New York City.
Their relationship is the focus of the film as Shawn and Gregory, who are basically the only actors in frame for 98% of the film, play somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves. It opens with Shawn making his way to a restaurant in the Upper West Side, where he is to have his dinner with Andre. The two haven’t seen each other in quite some time, and their dinner table exchange will mark a transcendent point for both of them.
During the course of the dinner, both men share a lot about themselves and what’s been going on in their lives. Shawn discusses his brief off-Broadway success and what it’s like being in a struggling position, career wise. Doing work off-Broadway doesn’t bring with it a lot of pay at the end of the day, which forced him to get a side job as a character actor and his girlfriend, herself a struggling writer, to take up a waitressing job three nights a week.
As for Andre, he has seen and been through a lot. I can only put such a limited description like that because, for the first 45 minutes, he talks at a nonstop pace on a variety of topics. In fact, he is so focused on his stories that he barely pauses to consume the entrée he’s ordered. And Wally is left with no choice but to respond to his amazingly detailed recollections.
In terms of the look of the film, it definitely has early 80s art house written all over it. Though the anamorphic picture itself is literally laced with grain throughout the presentation, I can’t fault the fine people at Criterion who no doubt did an effortless job in restoring the film via a high definition transfer. You can only do so much with certain films, and they have made the most out of a film that would’ve easily looked weaker in the hands of others.
The restored Dolby Mono mix delivers what is to be expected. You won’t find a more prime example of a “dialogue-oriented” film. But in addition to spoken word delivery, which is handled really well, the restaurant setting itself can be felt at times by the sounds of passing waiters and fellow patrons making use of their dinnerware. It's as nicely done as any film of this kind could ever hope to be.
Criterion has given this much cherished film a splendid 2-Disc release. Though we only get the film on Disc One, we get some fantastic extras on Disc Two, including some wonderful video interviews featuring filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who does in depth segments with both Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. There’s also an intriguing 1982 episode of the hour long BBC program Arena titled “My Dinner with Louis”, where Shawn interviews director Louis Malle about his career. Lastly, we get that outstanding Criterion staple; an insert booklet which features an essay by critic Amy Taubin, as well as prefaces written by Shawn and Gregory for the published screenplay.
There’s never been an experimental film quite like My Dinner With Andre, which illustrates why the film is beloved by so many. It’s definitely a film that is an acquired taste, but admirers of art house cinema should indeed take notice of this terrific release from Criterion.