My Dinner with André Review
Louis Malle’s directing career was notable for its diversity, as if powered by a will to make each film different from the one before. He would move from the black and white eroticism of The Lovers to the eyepopping colours and zany humour of Zazie dans le Métro, from the study of a suicide in Le feu follet to the colourful romp, involving two of the cinema’s most glamorous actresses, of Viva Maria!. From the late 70s to the mid 80s, Malle worked in the USA, with mixed results. Atlantic City remains the best film of that phase of his career, but My Dinner with André has had a lasting cult following.
At first sight, My Dinner with André seems the negation of cinema. Apart from a short prologue and epilogue, all the “action” takes place in real time at a restaurant table where two men have a conversation over dinner. (The waiter and the bartender are the only other credited characters.) However, appearances are deceptive. The two men may be called Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, be played by those two men, and their biographical details may match those of the real Shawn and Gregory, but this film should not be mistaken for documentary. The film was fully scripted by Shawn and Gregory and they are playing analogues of themselves – as real people turned into characters in a drama.
And drama is the word. Malle seems to be taking a leaf out of his compatriot Eric Rohmer’s book. Rohmer’s films frequently use dialogue to drive the plot and to illuminate character, and the audience is expected to pick up subtle nuances of speech. However, Malle goes further than Rohmer in that the dialogue is the plot. Shawn and Gregory’s talk may seem free-form but it isn’t: it is shaped into peaks and troughs like any other dramatic construction., with advances and reversals, and a conflict hidden beneath the surface of the conversation.
Shawn provides a voiceover during the opening sequence, establishing his struggle to establish himself as a playwright, and his need to take on acting roles to pay the rent. His partner Debbie is working as a secretary for the same reason. (The real Debbie appears briefly in the film as one of the other diners.) As he arrives at the restaurant, the film sets up a contrast between the short, scruffily-dressed Shawn, seemingly out of place in this upscale restaurant, and the tall, urbane Gregory, who is more than familiar with the place and their waiter. From the outset, Gregory dominates the conversation, reducing Shawn to the status of a feed. Gregory talks about his travels around the world in search of mystical, consciousness-expanding experiences.
However, Gregory’s virtual monologue is darker than it at first appears. References to Albert Speer and the Nazis seem almost random, but given that both men are of Jewish descent, they take on a sinister cast. Is Gregory really seeking out new, transcendent experiences, or is he trying to escape his past? And in the second part of the film, Shawn fights back, making a speech in praise of the simple things in life: tasks done, coffee drunk, evenings out with his partner.
Shooting in 16mm, albeit in a studio set rather than a real restaurant, Malle frames this very simply and self-effacingly – mostly close-ups and two-shots, with occasional shots of the waiter and the other diners. A strategically placed mirror often reflects Gregory in full flight, a subtle indication of his self-regard.
Since its release, the film has been up there with Sex, Lies and Videotape as the bearer of one of the most referenced and parodied titles of the 80s. At the time it had an obvious fascination in New York theatrical circles, many of whom knew Shawn and Gregory personally, as to how much was fact and what was fiction. It’s possible to see the film’s influence on a later mini-trend of talk-films, for example Spalding Gray’s three filmed monologues (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy). But the film remains one of a kind. If we can’t share the meal that Shawn and Gregory eat in front of us, we can at least take pleasure in their conversation, talk that is very much worth listening to. Gregory and Shawn would reunite with Malle in the latter's final film, Vanya on 42nd Street.
A trivia point: given their subsequent output, it’s something of a shock to see the names of Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Films in the end credits.
My Dinner with André is number 479 in the Criterion Collection, presented on two discs encoded for Region 1 only.
The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced and presented in a ratio of 1.66:1. That's very unusual for an American film, and is likely explained by the fact that a film of this kind would only play in arthouses and repertory cinemas which could show it in the correct ratio. Given the film's 16mm origins, it's inevitably grainy. The colours are muted (presumably intentionally) but blacks are solid.
The film was released in cinemas with a mono soundtrack, and that's what is presented on this DVD, centre channel only. The dialogue is the show here, and it's clear and audible. Subtitles are available for the feature and the extras.
There are only two extras on the second disc, but both are substantial. First off is an interview with first Gregory, then Shawn, by director Noah Baumbach (60:37), presented in 16:9. You can jump to each interviewee from a sub-index, the divide taking place at 31 minutes. Both men talk about how they met and describe the making of the film, especially the writing process. Gregory also describes how the actor (Jean Lenauer) was found to play the waiter. Lenauer had worked in film distribution for most of his life, but this was his only acting role before his death in 1983. Shawn marvels at the freedom he was given by Malle – not once did the internationally-acclaimed director attempt to pull rank over the unsuccessful avant-garde playwright.
“My Dinner with Louis” (52:09) is a 1982 (though copyrighted 1984 for some reason) episode of the BBC series Arena. Shawn had played a small role in Atlantic City and in that seaside town Shawn interviews Malle about his career, beginning with his work for Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s. Clips from Malle's films seem to be taken from old cinema prints, with burned-in subtitles –, or TV masters with electronic subtitles, though extracts from Scope films like Les amants are panned-and-scanned. We also see extracts from Malle's controversial BBC documentary series about India. "My Dinner with Louis" is presented in 4:3.
Criterion's booklet includes an essay, “Long Strange Trips” by Amy Taubin and also Shawn and Gregory's separate introductions to the published screenplay. The booklet is designed as a fake screenplay, with a Courier-like font and fake coffeestains.