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My Dinner with Andre: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // PG // June 16, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 21, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Conversations like the one in My Dinner with Andre are rare and precious things. The desire to discuss philosophical and social ideas among friends frequently comes up, sure, but it seldom organically branches from the conversation the way it does when Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory sit down for quail and espresso in a dapper restaurant. Better known for crime thrillers like Elevator to the Gallows and heavy biographical dramas like Lacombe, Lucien, French director Louis Malle gathers together this incredibly straightforward premise -- written by Shawn and Gregory themselves -- and telegraphs a naturally-evolving evening of conceptual discussion that's bound to provoke thought in anyone who views it. What's most impressive about My Dinner with Andre lies in how relevant the things these two men of the theater discussed in the early-'80s remains to this date, if not even more so, exploring a back-and-forth of questions about creature comforts, the significance of experiential artwork, and existential stagnancy between two starkly different minds.

Interestingly, despite the quaint play-like scenario, My Dinner with Andre cleverly manages to slip in the idea of a multi-act structure, acclimating us to these two metacontextual characters within the first act. Introduced through his own narration, Wallace struggles to make ends meet, lacking the funds to do much of anything beyond eke out a simple existence of writing more plays than he profits from and living with his bread-winning girlfriend. He meets ex-director and teacher Andre for dinner, something he's avoided time and time again over the past few years, which is strange considering he was once a close colleague. In a fancy restaurant clearly out of Wallace's pay grade, the two sit down and do some brief catching up before Wallace inquires about what Andre's been up to over the past few years, considering his disappearance from the public view and the rumors going around. So starts their evening together, carefully yet unobtrusively directed by Malle's perspective on facial reactions.

The audience gets to know Andre through a series of recounts on his time exploring the world and its many venues of spiritual and existential awakening, with the traveler spinning eloquent tales about each of them for Wallace. Given the context known about Wally's banal and penniless life, it's unsurprising that he becomes an eager listener to Andre's experiences, ranging from an odd gathering of people in a directionless sensory workshop to journeys through the desert and macabre false burials. These are wild, mind-blowing experiences, and they're likely to provoke the audience in difference ways: some will view them as an impressive adventure towards self-discovery, and others might view them with a degree of skepticism over what Andre experiences and learns. Either way, it proves a way for those watching to develop a roadmap of sorts to how Andre's mind and sensibilities work. While interesting, these recollections do tend to drag on as Wally continues to prod Andre for more of what's next.

Eventually, the discussion perks up with broader philosophical topics -- a summary of sorts to where Andre's arrived in his internal musings during his travels -- that invite Wally's participation, which becomes the main course of Louis Malle's film. Here, their dialogue closes in on some rather thought-provoking topics with seemingly timeless themes, about the dangers of staying within one's comfort zone and how feelings of security and routine can suppress what defines humanity. Barefaced, nuanced performances from Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory delve into lengthy uncut stretches in which their characters, embellished versions of themselves, amicably clash and converge over their differing viewpoints. In particular, Andre's discussion about human robots, self-imposed prisons, and Orwellian domination provides a lot of food for thought, conveying an enduring message about technology and convenience. The desire to interject one's own opinion on matters while relishing their company and their perspectives is a testament to that.

In a unique spin on sticking to the act structure, the conclusion of My Dinner with Andre takes an abrupt turn in tone: Wally posits his general summary and response to Andre's outlook on life, digging into the fundamental differences between the two men and their philosophies on life. The experience in ebbing and flowing between the resolve in their opinions, where those watching will agree with some and disagree with others, skillfully caps off their theoretical dialogue. Wally's somewhat wounded conservativeness thankfully isn't one-note, allowing his somewhat pedestrian way of life to retain its own legitimacy against the more enlightened path taken by Andre. Yet, there's no denying that the dinner challenged and opened Wally's mind, leaving him in a different state that, too, should also have some effect on those who've gone through the experience with him. We may not be able to taste the potato soup or hear the restaurant's chatter all around us, but the frankness of their conversation and the intimacy of Malle's filmmaking certainly makes us feel like we've brought ourselves to the table.

The Blu-ray:

The Criterion Collection have served up their Blu-ray remastering of My Dinner with Andre, spine #479, in their standard clear, single-disc packaging, replicating the front artwork, the solid brown interior coloring, and the disc design. A nice Booklet comes with the release that duplicates the coffee-stained script-like presentation from the DVD, complete with an essay from Amy Taubin, "Long, Strange Trips", and "On the Origins of My Dinner with Andre", a collection of excerpts from Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory that came with published screenplays in 1981. TH only difference is that the DVD booklet has a matte, natural feel to the printed paper, while the Blu-ray booklet comes in standard glossy paper.

Video and Audio:

Even for cinephiles, upgrading My Dinner with Andre to Blu-ray isn't an easy sell, considering its static perspective on two men dining for nearly two hours, the low-budget nature of said project, and the fact that the folks at Criterion have already cooked up a splendid transfer several years back. Discerning aficionados of the film will really appreciate the elevation in quality in this 1.66:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment, though, and it's mostly because of how incredibly natural the film now appears in this new scan of the 16mm source. The color palette remains about the same as the DVD, perhaps with slightly stronger tans and greens in clothing and warmer skin tones, while contrast levels are equally respectful to details within the cast shadows of the restaurant's ambience. Where the transfer shines is in the incredibly fine, organic film grain present throughout, a tremendous step-up from the dated and bulky treatment in the '09 transfer, as well as the enhanced fine details underneath: bread baskets, wine glasses, and the roasted skin on quail. The cords in Wally's corduroy jacket and the fuzziness of Andre's sweater see a notable uptick in fine clarity, as do the tight close-up on the men's faces. It might not be the most attractive Blu-ray out there, but the precision on making it look nature is top shelf, indeed.

It's even more difficult to convince folks that the sonic treatment deserves the uptick, as there's little differentiating the mono tracks between releases, both derived from the original 16mm magnetic tracks. Naturally, they're both entirely reliant on dialogue, excluding a small handful of sound effects: the placement of a plate on the table, the pouring of wine, the creak of floorboards underneath feet. It's all about the dialogue, to which Criterion's mono PCM treatment deftly handles Andre's lower, slightly raspy tone and Wally's higher-pitched, slightly mumbling tempo. There's no discernible distortion or interference, allowing the activity happening in the distance to be faintly heard, while the silent gaps within their conversation are whisper quiet. There are one or two dips in clarity where the dialogue goes flat, but they're never rendered indiscernible. The track's everything it needs to be. English subtitles are available alongside the sole English track.

Special Features:

Nothin' new to talk about here. The Criterion Collection have carried over the slate of features from their DVD presentation of My Dinner with Andre, and while they're short in numbers, they're incredibly satisfying in the scope of the content they cover. We're treated to a pair of Video Interviews with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (1:00:35, 16x9) as they discuss the conceptualization and making of the film for thirty minutes each, touching on how they landed on Louis Malle as director and whittled down the film from a three-hour script, how Wallace Shawn's passion for theater informed the storytelling, and about making a case for life and friendship through the script. Noah Baumbach acts as the interview, and he knows the right questions to ask at a given moment to lure a desires response out of both actors. As soon as it seems like some overlap in their making-of storytelling will overlap, they go in different directions, and in very candid ways. It's a great pair of interviews.

The other supplement available with this release is a vintage, nearly hour-long discussion with Shawn and Louis Malle entitled My Dinner With Louis (52:12, 4x3), a lengthy conversation with the French director mostly about his previous work and artistic sensibilities. It's a nice conversation, but greatly spaced out between external clips, and only the last five minutes or so are dedicated to My Dinner with Andre.

Final Thoughts:

While there are roundabout topics that will always carry some significance within our cultural communication, certain ones are addressed in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre that still really strike a chord today, perhaps even more so than during the film's release in 1981. Listening to Andre's musings and following Wallace's responses to them remains rather absorbing across the board, though the conversation's pacing drags at the beginning with subsequent viewings. Once the pair dig into the "deeper" aspects of their talk, however, the relevancy of the stuff they're chewing on undoubtedly picks up the thematic tempo. Fine grain and refined detail are the two reasons to pick up The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of the almost documentary-style indie, creating an incredibly filmic presentation alongside the same interview features available in the standard-definition package. Strongly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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