Despite their vastly differing source materials and the expanses of years separating each of their releases, André Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s three film collaborations, My Dinner with André, Vanya on 42nd Street, and A Master Builder, retrospectively cohere as a thematic trilogy that follows several privileged men and women as they wrestle with their place in the world, struggling to breach the interiors of their embittered minds to connect with outer society. In each, the characters played by the two actor/screenwriter/playwrights have a similar relationship with one another: Shawn plays the rattled, impassioned, insecure foil to Gregory’s cooler, sporadically smug cucumber (though this pattern is cannily reversed in A Master Builder). Shawn’s characters are always the leads though, and each film charts a distinctive portion of their development, as they move from middle-aged everyman bookworm to powerful elder statesman.
Based on an original screenplay by Gregory and Shawn, My Dinner with André follows fictionalized versions of the two artists as they share a long dinner, discussing the nature of social distance, privilege, and role-playing, while playing roles themselves among the great privilege of a rarefied restaurant. This hypocrisy is the script’s absurdist joke, which director Louis Malle informs with the pathos of what might be termed quotidian tragedy. The role-playing gradually burns away to reveal two men opening up to one another, comparatively unguarded. Shawn grows more confident, challenging Gregory’s insidious self-satisfaction, while Gregory unmasks the longing driving his extraordinary orations.
In My Dinner with André, Shawn’s an unformed, unsuccessful writer in his 30s, living the life that position classically entails, which includes working menial jobs and entertaining interior suspicions of being a ludicrous fraud. Vanya on 42nd Street, adapted by David Mamet from Anton Chekhov’s play, features Shawn in the title role, which is to say that we free-associate him within the structure of this trilogy as having realized in his mid 40s the fears that governed him in his mid 30s. Uncle Vanya is one of the theater’s great frustrated failures, having devoted his life to serving a celebrated writer and academic who married his now-deceased sister, his own potentials for self-actualization squandered. The play is one of Chekov’s best known, of course, and it embodies the author’s theme of time as an almost physical presence ebbing away, leaving in its wake a kind of plasma of melancholic nostalgia. Directing again, Malle strips the text to its essence, complementing it with an aesthetic that weds roaming camerawork with lush, painterly cinematography that roots the play in an echo chamber of the theatrical past while pushing it up to a meta-textual present that’s governed by an intermingling of actors alternately in and out of their characters. These various jagged contrasts are cumulatively unmooring and emotionally devastating.
A Master Builder is taken from Henrik Ibsen’s play and stripped down by director Jonathan Demme in a manner similar to Malle’s staging of the Chekov. Figuratively fatted by success and the company of women and the vanquishing of rivals, who include a dying architect played by Gregory, Shawn’s character is warped by bitterness forged by years of emotional distance as well as the ego gratification of unexpected success. If one watches all three films over a weekend, they might be startled by the transformation of Shawn’s character in this film from the consciously pitiful ne’er-do-well of the prior pictures to a seething snake. There’s an element of catharsis in A Master Builder when seen as comprising the third part of an unofficial trilogy, a sense of Shawn finally having the opportunity to play a role that defiantly resists his type-casting as a powerless grump. His character, Master Solness, is a Machiavellian manipulator, but also a classic quasi-comedic Shawn imp, and these complementing energies drive A Master Builder to attain a surreally galvanizing lyrical power.
Together, the films offer an unusual glance into the intersection between theater, cinema, and the surrounding stimuli that informs the production of both art forms. Malle and Demme shoot theatrical characters, already honed by the actors playing them over a course of years under Gregory’s considerable tutelage, as they would real people in a documentary, catching them as catch can. From the theater side of this wedding of mediums springs the verbal poetry and the complex webbing of symbols, and from cinema comes the physical immediacy of watching actors who’re emboldened to play to themselves rather than projecting to a crowd, imbuing the contrivances of theater with an illusion of the everyday reality of people who sometimes mutter and whisper or barely voice their thoughts at all. These films represent another merging as well: of the French New Wave, via Malle, with the American art world, through Shawn and Gregory, with American film’s response to the French New Wave, via Demme. This trilogy is a great hall-of-mirrors magnum opus of art’s hold on life and vice versa, featuring Shawn as a uniting, poignant, waywardly corruptible man of all hungers.
My Dinner with André is awfully grainy, but the actors’ skin textures are marvelously detailed (which is important to a film comprised mostly of faces) and the image generally sports an attractively soft, burnished sheen that’s very much in keeping with the film’s rumpled intellectual spirit. Vanya on 42nd Street and A Master Builder are both unambiguously gorgeous here, which is somewhat logical given their comparative youth. Vanya on 42nd Street is a film defined by reds and blacks, primarily of the cavernous theater that serves as the chief setting, while A Master Builder is often composed of startlingly varied and pristine whites. Skin textures are detailed in both of these films as well, and the transfers boast superb richness and image clarity without compromising a certain level of intentionally achieved grit. None of these films look too "cleaned up," which might be why there’s a mild grain issue with My Dinner with André. The respective sound mixes are all exemplarily subtle and nuanced, particularly in terms of suggesting location with subtle supporting sounds. Hearing these movies, one really feels as if they’re among the clattering dishes of a restaurant, or moving within the echoing, voluminous confines of a theater or navigating a country mansion.
Collectively, the three discs assemble an interesting range of interview materials spanning from My Dinner with André’s release in 1981 to the promotion of A Master Builder over the last few years. Taken on their own, each piece allows the actors, writers, and directors to compellingly describe their experiences making the films, with the most interesting sentiments often pertaining to André Gregory’s methods of work-shopping Vanya on 42nd Street and A Master Builder through years of rehearsals, in which the performers would come to view their characters as second skins. The supplements do tend to repeat one another though, and one wishes for a bit more variety, which is partially satisfied by "My Dinner with Louis," a 1982 episode of the BBC program Arena in which Shawn speaks with director Louis Malle, affording one a look at a legendary director through the eyes of an interviewer who actually collaborated with him. There are no audio commentaries, and that might be for the best, as there’s a certain mystery to these films’ emotional intensity that needn’t be entirely dissected. The best supplements are the beautifully written essays by critics Amy Taubin, Steve Vineberg, and Michael Sragow. And the inclusion of the prefaces that Shawn and Gregory wrote for the publication of the My Dinner with André script near its original theatrical release is also an inspired, thorough touch.
Cinephiles and theater nerds unite: Three of the respective mediums’ most emotionally gratifying collisions are now available in an aurally/visually exquisite Criterion gift package.