Judge Roy Hrab: Reliably providing banal dinnertime conversation since 1998.
Our review of My Dinner with Andre (1981) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published June 22nd, 2015, is also available.
"But the worst thing of all was that I'd been trapped by an odd series of circumstances into agreeing to have dinner with a man I'd been avoiding literally for years. His name was André Gregory."
My first exposure to My Dinner With André was from an episode of The Simpsons where Martin Prince plays a video game version of the film. The arcade screen featured two men sitting at a table, offering three courses of action for the player: "Bon Mot," "Trenchant Insight," and "Tell Me More." I've wondered about the significance of the film ever since, but had not gotten around to watching it. Until now, that is. Was it worth the wait? I'm not so sure, but I do understand why The Simpsons mocked it.
Facts of the Case
After years of no contact, Wally (Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride), a struggling playwright and actor, has dinner with his friend and eccentric theatre director André (André Gregory, The Last Temptation Of Christ). For the next two hours, the friends talk and talk and talk about life, the universe, and everything.
My Dinner With André made me think. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Indeed, even as I write this, I'm still not entirely clear about the point of the whole thing. Is it a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual exercise, the kind of nonsense-filled conversation immature philosophy majors have with one another and elitist film critics love, or does the film have something meaningful to say about life and the human condition? Is there something real there, or is it just empty talk?
There is no question the film, as directed by Louis Malle (Atlantic City), is (at times) captivating viewing. The conversation between Wally and Andre has an almost hypnotizing rhythm. Without it, the whole endeavour would be unwatchable. Indeed, based on the premise, the movie should be unwatchable. It's just two middle-aged men, sitting at table, eating, and talking for almost two hours. Yet a good portion of the 111 minute run time flies by. It's easy to get swept up in the current of the conversation, without paying close attention to the words. With his spare but intelligent camera work—consisting of close-ups and the framing of both men—Malle capitalizes on our inclination to eavesdrop on strangers. On this level of style (rather than substance), the film is strong and quite successful.
However, the specifics of the conversation are an altogether different matter. The first half consists of Shawn listening while Gregory recounts his adventures in Poland, the Sahara, Scotland, and other experiences like living with a Japanese monk or being buried alive. It's a one-sided monologue (Wally either laughs uncomfortably or asks for more information), but the stories are interesting and Gregory's delivery is mesmerizing. The second half is another story. Wally and André commence a dialogue about life and art. It's intended to be an intimate conversation between two men struggling with fundamental questions of what it is to truly be alive. In truth, it's like Seinfeld without the humor. This is painfully obvious, during a debate about the pros and cons of using an electric blanket. The discussion is eye rolling, if not downright groan inducing.
At many points, the conversation drags and veers into absurdity. Wally and André talk about the superficiality of contemporary theatre, but it sounds more like a stereotypical exchange between two out-of-touch snobs whining about a state of affairs they don't agree with. The weakest section (which diehard fans of the film probably view as the strongest) is the debate on the compatibility between materialism and self-awareness. Gregory insists most people are sleepwalking through life, playing predetermined roles at home and work, numbing themselves physically and mentally through material comforts and other modern conveniences and distractions. He contends few of us are truly living, needing to be shocked out of unreality. Wally argues art and everyday experiences—rather than an austere lifestyle and spiritual adventures to exotic locations—offer a way to jolt people into self-awareness. André is not convinced and proceeds to launch into a diatribe against modern living, promoting some form of new age spirituality as the way out. Wally counters that he likes the luxuries of modern times, including his enjoyment of a cold cup of coffee in the morning and the electric blanket. The conversation thus descends into amateur philosopher hour, filled with half-baked ideas about active versus robotic living and the scientific method versus mysticism. Yes, many people wonder and talk about these matters, but there's a reason they don't spend entire dinners on them: the conversation is unproductive. Isn't odd the two never question whether the dinner and conversation they are engaging in is itself a form of mental and physical distraction from true living?
If André practiced what he preached, the dinner would not be taking place in a posh Manhattan restaurant, featuring fine wine, roast quail, and espresso. His adventures are made possible only by his fortunate financial position, and he himself makes a minor admission to this fact. Does this make André a hypocrite, or do the filmmakers believe active living is only available for the fiscally privileged? Of course, this could also be a deliberate attempt at irony or even an inside joke, but I don't believe so because Wally never calls André out on these details. If the filmmakers intended audiences to ponder the questions addressed by these two men as serious and universal, shouldn't the discussion be taking place in a modest location involving participants of humble occupations instead involving enlightened "artists"? Then again, perhaps such a change would have alienated the target audience: people who fancy themselves intellectuals, watch art house films and rave about their depth and profundity, while lamenting the lack of cerebral content of popular cinema.
The film is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is decent enough. Grain is visible throughout, the picture and colours lacking crispness, without suffering any major problems. The unspectacular audio is Dolby Mono, but the dialogue requires nothing more.
This two-disc Criterion release comes with a relatively lean set of extras. The first disc contains just the film. The second features individual interviews with Gregory and Shawn by Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale), giving details about the genesis and production of the film. Also included are "My Dinner With Louis," a 1982 interview of Malle conducted by Shawn for the BBC program Arena. It's an interesting piece with Malle discussing his catalogue of films up to that point. Finally, the package contains a booklet featuring essays about the film by Shawn, Gregory, and film critic Amy Taubin.
Reading reviews is not enough. A viewing of My Dinner With André is required. Many consider the film to be a classic. I found the execution novel, the acting solid, and the subject matter thought-provoking. However, I also found it unsatisfying, because of its affected, overly preachy tone, snooty attitude, and lack of substance, particularly during the second half. Perhaps I didn't "get" it. Either way, some will agree with my view, others will sharply disagree. I accept that. Maybe, one day, we can discuss our differences over dinner.
Guilty of taking itself far too seriously.
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