Perhaps the most valuable insight that André Gregory: Before and After Dinner provides about its subject is that he acts even as he directs. Throughout the documentary, Gregory observes rehearsals of his costume- and stage-less production of Ibsen's The Master Builder, which features his frequent collaborator Wallace Shawn; a series of fussy, handheld close-ups dote on Gregory's not-quite-critical but undeniably participatory facial twitches, Buddhic grins, and gentle, religious-like finger gestures. That Gregory manages his players with such ambiguous kinesthetic nuance won't surprise anyone familiar with his early work, the highly physical nature of which was inspired by mid-century Eastern European dramaturges like Jerzy Grotowsky. But for those who primarily know the avant-garde stage hero through his art-house collaborations with Shawn, such moments reveal how just how much of the "private" Gregory bled through to the surface of films like My Dinner with André. While the two have balked at the implication that they played any version of themselves in Louis Malle's philosophical ode to New York City, it's not hard to imagine the impish, cosmic Gregory depicted here spinning yarns about premature burials over roasted squab.
Produced and directed by Gregory's most recent (and much younger) spouse, Cindy Kleine, the film is in one sense a portrait of their airy and often depressingly ordinary domestic partnership, as well as an exploration of how Gregory's new identity as a happily married man intersects with his parallel lives in theater, fine art, and film culture. Somewhat expectedly, the thread concerning Gregory's career proves more piquant than the one concerning his romantic bliss; Kleine's iMovie-ish crop-and-chop indulgences, one of which provides a Ross McAlwee-style inventory of her few adult relationships, only dilute the astonishingly raw, Betacam-captured volition of the archival footage included. (Clips from Gregory's infamous mid-'70s production of Alice in Wonderland, featuring Larry Pine as a frantic, orgasmically metamorphosing caterpillar, are particularly pupil-dilating.) Still, the documentary's interspersing of gratingly "domestic" content (Gregory doing Pilates, applying Spiderman Band-Aids, and so on) with heavier biographical material urges us to look beyond the face value of the stories with which his talking head enchants us; when he relates ending an argument on the set of Demolition Man by citing the legacy of My Dinner with André, one wonders if he isn't lapsing into braggadocio fluff for his wife's benefit.
The documentary's free-associative structure brushes up against a lot of psychoanalytical brick walls as well; while Gregory is surprisingly open about his uncannily difficult relationship with his father ("The Shining...was a documentary about my childhood," he quips), who may have even been a business advisor to the Nazis, these dips into a mostly obnubliated past prove monotonously inconclusive. But Gregory's work has also never evidenced a predilection for the contextual thinking or the factual curiosity that such introspective self-history requires. His most indelible gift is instead his ability to intuit any given moment's emotional "rightness," and his knack for corralling and collaborating with the intuition of others. (Or, as Gregory himself parses it, "I create a playground for demented children.") In the documentary's most endearing interview, Larry Pine describes how Gregory coaxed an unthinkably authentic line reading out of a non-professional actor while the three were stargazing in the mountains. Pine's reaction to this marvel, as he tells it, is the only reasonable way most of us can appreciate the fruits of Gregory's ineffable directorial talents: he gasped.