(“My Dinner With Andre” recently celebrated its 40th anniversary of release, prompting me to watch it once more. The first time I saw the film I was fairly young and both characters seemed to have much more mature “adult” concerns than I could quite connect with at the time. The second time I watched it, I was about Wally's age, and Andre still seemed so old, practically in his twilight years. On this revisit, I'm somehow older than Andre and I gotta say I find these two kids absolutely adorable! Here is a slightly re-edited version of the review I posted for the film's 2009 Criterion release on DVD. Criterion later provided a Blu-ray upgrade in 2015 and that's probably you best bet if you're looking to add “Andrew” to your collection.)
Criterion is releasing three of the most iconic art-house films of all-time this month. Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal” (1957) helped to establish the art-house exhibition circuit in America and its imagery has been parodied in films like Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” (1975) and, perhaps most famously for American audiences, in Pete Hewitt’s “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991). A hit. You have sunk my battleship.
This month's other releases define two of the extremes of the perceived tendencies of art-house cinema. Alain Resnais' “Last Year at Marienbad” is, for some, the very definition of the impenetrable, hyper-intellectualized puzzle box pitched at self-styled intellectuals who pretend to glean meaning from a flurry of pretentious signifiers. Which is to say, it's just one of those “weird ass” movies that only movie geeks would watch (Ed. Note: It's in my personal Top 10, of course).
“My Dinner with Andre” (1981) represents a different art-house extreme, the quotidian movie in which nothing happens. Two men sit at a table and talk. That’s the whole damn movie, or almost all of it. No Marienbad mysteries here, it's all easy to understand: just soup, a plate of quail, and a lot of jabber. Which is to say it's one of those “boring ass” movies that only movie geeks would watch.
All three movies have carved out a place in popular culture, though “Marienbad” in a more roundabout route through fashion advertisements. For the sheer audacity (or absurdity, depending on your perspective) of its structure and its title, “My Dinner with Andre” has spawned its share of jokes. In “The Simpsons,” nerdy Martin Prince plays an arcade game based on the film, and in “Waiting for Guffman,”Christopher Guest’s character shows off his “My Dinner with Andre” action figures.
The joke in both cases in based on the contrast between “action” and the inertia of the film. But “My Dinner with Andre” is a pretty lively affair with dramatic ebbs and flows like most narrative films. Wally (Wallace Shawn, playing a fictional version of himself) is a playwright who is on his way to visit old friend Andre (Andre Gregory, also playing a fictional version of himself.) On the bus ride to the restaurant, Wally worries about his girlfriend and his career but mostly worries about Andre. He hasn’t seen Andre, also a playwright, in years, and the rumor is that Andre has gone totally crazy.
Once dinner begins, Andre doesn’t do much to dispel the rumors. He speaks of wild adventures in what can only be called “extreme improvisation,” acting workshops in the woods somewhere in Europe that evolve into sub-cultures centered around pagan rituals like ceremonial burials, communing with spirits, and related gibberish.
“My Dinner With Andre” is a downright transgressive film because it brazenly allows its characters to just talk. Actually it allows Andre to talk and, just as importantly, for Wally to listen. For the first hour or so, Wally does almost nothing but say “So what else happened?” as Andre rambles from one silly anecdote to another. Few actors would be willing to just sit there and do nothing but listen, but then again Shawn and Gregory did conceive and write the play, only bringing Louis Malle in to direct at a later stage of the project.
Watching the movie again, I realized that Wally is a genuine hero. As Andre blathers about one spiritual, transcendent experience after another, he becomes increasingly annoying, his mind so “open” to possibilities that he has abandoned all skeptical rigor. Finally Wally, fortified by the first few dinner courses (fish pate and roasted quail), can’t take it anymore: “Do you want to know my actual response?” Yes, Wally, we do! Slay that New Age dragon with your sword of reason!
Wally defends his bourgeois existence with gusto. Andre, to his credit, is a good sport about it. Deep down, he knows he’s peddling snake oil and it becomes clear that he really does value Wally’s friendship. It would have been too easy for the final act to end acrimoniously, providing a traditionally dramatic denouement. But they do what respectful friends do. They talk out their differences and get to know each other a little better in the process.
One of the pleasures of “My Dinner With Andre” is the opportunity to see things not normally considered important enough to depict on screen. As mundane as it seems, we rarely get to watch other people have a simple dinner conversation. Of course, this is a rehearsed, highly polished conversation between two performers riffing on their real life personas, but still the film’s explicit argument is that a mundane event like this is worthy of being put on film (directed by a genuine celebrated auteur, no less!) and subsequently being viewed by others. And the fact that it remains a popular draw even today is proof that the film’s argument is a valid one.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “Andre” was filmed in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, so the image is grainy and the resolution is not as sharp as we’ve become accustomed to from Criterion but that’s because of the source material, not the transfer. It’s a very solid effort.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Dialogue is clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Both extras are on Disc Two of this 2-disc set.
Director Noah Baumbach records separate interviews with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shaw, each about a half hour long. They’re included in the same feature and can be watched either separately or an hour long program. They were recorded recently for the Criterion Collection.
“My Dinner with Louis” (42 min.) is a 1982 episode of the BBC program “Arena.” Wallace Shawn meets with Louis Malle in Atlantic City to discuss Malle’s career. Directed by Tristram Powell.
The insert booklet includes an essay by Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory to their published screenplay.
Watching “My Dinner with Andre” on DVD gives viewers the chance to pay attention to the lesser-discussed aspects of the movie.While Louis Malle shoots in a fairly straightforward matter, shifting between close-ups and two-shots, the strategic placement of a mirror behind the dinner companions gives the longer shots more energy and keeps Andre’s face in view even when he’s turned away from the camera. And then of course there’s the marvelous waiter, played by non-professional actor Jean Lenauer, who likes like he might have snuck in from a French B-horror movie.
If you’ve only heard of “My Dinner with Andre” by way of its pop culture parodies, you may have some preconceptions about the film. Place them aside and watch the movie with a fresh eye because it’s a lot more vibrant and flat-out entertaining than you might think. It’s not just a “boring ass” movie for movie geeks. It’s lots of fun.