The Dinner is the third adaptation of Herman Koch’s 2009 novel, after a Dutch and Italian version, and starts from much the same premise – a group of four friends meeting in an exclusive restaurant to discuss how to best deal with a crime committed by their sons. Anchoring the quartet is Paul Lohman, played by Steve Coogan, a disgruntled and disenfranchised history teacher, whose monologues and asides help orient the screenplay as we flash between past and present, and between the restaurant and the world outside. His wife, Claire, is played by Laura Linney, while they’re joined by his brother Stan, played by Richard Gere, an eminent gubernatorial candidate, and his second wife, Katelyn, played by Rebecca Hall (Stan’s first wife Barbara, who we see only in flashback, is played by Chloe Sevigny). For the most part, the characterisation plays to all the actors’ respective strengths, but especially Coogan, who totally nails the blustery self-righteousness required of his role here, and is probably the most successful at translating the dialogue of the novel into cinematic language. At first, to be sure, his incessant, pedantic, fussy citations of “historical precedents” are a bit tiresome, and seem to presage a social expose pitched at the level of a mid-range Philip Roth adaptation. But as the evening proceeds, these academic asides are folded into his particular pathologies in quite a compelling manner, intensifying into the same hysterical misanthropy Coogan brought to bear on Showtime’s short-lived Happyish.
For all that this seems like a fairly familiar premise – secrets coming to light during a dinner party – the film quickly takes some fairly unexpected directions. From what I understand, the majority of the novel is set in the restaurant, and punctured by flashbacks and asides that help contextualise what is taking place between the two couples. To some extent, that’s true of the adaptation, since the majority of the action is still anchored in the restaurant, and structured around the progression of the degustation menu. Yet the film never exactly feels set in the restaurant, as Moverman evinces little interest in generating a sense of place, with the result that the dinner itself – along with the episodic titles of “Aperitif,” “Entrée” and so on – quickly comes to seem marginal to what is taking place, even if the film doesn’t exactly take place anywhere else either. Displaced from its putative backdrop in this way, The Dinner often only really appears to inhabit the restaurant as a hallucinatory projection of all Paul’s insecurities, resulting in scene after scene in which he cuts through the etiquette of fine dining like a distorted version of The Trip. In fact, it’s through these interactions with the restaurant staff that most of Paul’s character development occurs, even if the only person who really seems to exist in any kind of tangible way is Dylan Heinz, the chief waiter, who is played by Michael Chemus in a direct continuation of his persona in Orange is the New Black, where as Piper Chapman’s brother Cal he also reminds us that there is a world somewhere outside the prison of the narrative.
Yet if The Dinner never feels “set” in this restaurant, it never exactly feels set outside the restaurant either, even if this is where the crux of the story takes place. Against convention, Moverman doesn’t opt for any grand delay or staggered disclosure of the crime that the two couples have gathered to discuss, revealing fairly on that their two sons set a homeless black woman on fire after she refused to give up her place for them in an ATM booth. To make matters more complicated, Stan’s adopted son Beau – who is also black – filmed the crime, and has now demanded that his brother and cousin provide him with a sizeable amount of money to prevent him sharing the footage, ruining his father’s gubernatorial bid, and sending them both to prison, although it’s never entirely clear whether Beau has been motivated by his sympathy for the black woman, his exhaustion with the racial jibes he receives on a daily basis from his adoptive peers, or some combination of both. What is clear is that this is a fairly demonic vision of the millennial generation, but to its credit The Dinner never feels petulant about youth either, if only because the quartet of parents are themselves so repulsive that it’s clear that their kids are merely fruit of the poisoned tree.
With Moverman unwilling to anchor the narrative in either the restaurant or the ATM booth, the action quickly gravitates to the threshold of each, as one parent after another takes shelter in the stairwells, atrium and driveway of the restaurant while trying to process just what their sons were thinking as they gazed at the burning body through the glass walls of the booth. Almost from the moment the quartet sits down to dinner, then, the table feels as if it has been recently evacuated, with Stan and Paul’s first conversation consisting of a squabble over whether they should remain in the main part of the restaurant or retreat to a private room. Yet the argument is redundant from the moment it begins – like so many of the exchanges throughout the film – since Stan is already occupying this private space in spirit, continually retreating to the darkest depths of the restaurant to check on his campaign, while Paul grows so introspective in his absence that the table around him seems to have been entirely abstracted from the demands of fine dining, let alone the restaurant around it. Within that strange, distended space, Paul’s continuous pontifications on history play as so many efforts to prevent the events of the film converging around him, even as the front, foyer and main dining area are collapsed into a single, luminous strip of red light, flattened out by the perennial jazz score always playing somewhere off in the background.
It’s here that Moverman really plants his signature on the film and differentiates it from the adaptation that might have occurred if Cate Blanchett had helmed it for her directorial debut, as was originally intended. From The Messenger to Time Out of Mind, Moverman has often been interested in older characters who find themselves out of sync with new ways of experiencing and structuring time, although their disorientation has never warped the fabric of his films quite as drastically as it does here. It’s no coincidence that the brief prologue in Paul and Claire’s bedroom is set against a drifting, dispersed echo of Bob Dylan’s own Time Out of Mind, nor that the particular track in question is “Standing in the Doorway,” the perfect prelude to a film whose spaces continually appear to have evaporated and diffused around their thresholds. As with so many of the tracks on Dylan’s album, there’s a trauma buried in The Dinner that the dinner can never quite articulate, if only because this particular narrative structure – disclosure at a dinner party – is one whose function has always been to contain and forestall that trauma in the first place. After all, there are few bourgeois tropes that have proven as resilient as the dinner party in affirming the elasticity of middle-class insularity. Virtually every film festival of note tends to feature some iteration of this well-worn formula, which has proven remarkably durable from one era of cinema to the next, and never more so than in our own digital age, in which the address of the camera can often seem more jettisoned from normative middle-class existence than ever before.
Indeed, The Dinner is the third film alone to adapt Koch’s novel – the third in less than a decade – and yet this is less an adaptation than an exhaustion, in which the characters and the screenplay seem to glimpse some inexorable finitude to the bourgeois institutions that they enact. It may start, like every dinner party film before it, by promising to test, bend and warp the sanctified structure of bourgeois family life, but the twist of The Dinner is that it never erects that structure to begin with, resulting in a disarming freefall in which the characters devolve but have nothing to measure that devolution against either. No wonder, then, that the film has received such negative reviews, since this refusal to establish a bourgeois benchmark in an inherently bourgeois genre renders the film quite unwatchable and almost incoherent for large swathes, as if Moverman had committed the grave sin of testing this time-tested trope just a little too emphatically, violently or seriously. Even or especially at is most lushly atmospheric, this restaurant never feels capable of sequestering the characters from the outside world – not even parodically, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – or indeed from the world in which the film itself is viewed and distributed.
The biggest concession Moverman makes is the climactic conversation, in which the quartet finally retreat to a sumptuous private room after things get too heated for the main part of the restaurant. Yet even this hushed exchange is so fractured by messages and status updates that I initially assumed that they were coming from one of the phones in the cinema where I was watching the film. So disconnected are they, too, from the main sonic plane of the scene, that I have to assume that Moverman intended these glitches and blips to hover somewhere between the audience and the world on the screen, not unlike musicians who bring in ambient sounds at the fringes of their music to make the listener question how much of the music already inheres in their immediate environment. Not only does The Dinner signal something fateful about the dinner party as a trope, then, but about film as an institution, since dinner parties as they appear on screen have themselves become something of a synecdoche for the fate of film as a middle-class mass medium, and the decline of film’s capacity to mediate the mutual regard of couples, parents and families.
In other words, and in the most profound way, The Dinner plays like a film made for nobody, least of all the kinds of couples of depicts, all of whom might have enjoyed (or endured) their first burst of middle-class family life but can no longer bear to even contemplate it in their older age. That begs the question of how to even end a film of this kind without conjuring up an audience in the very process of resolving the action, and Moverman responds with two very different, successive conclusions. In the first, we end, as we began, with Paul, who leaves the restaurant repeating mantras about how much he loves his family as he drives over to Stan’s house in order to murder Beau and prevent footage of his own son’s murder surfacing. As he confronts Beau outside, leads him to the woods, and wraps his hands around his neck, Paul starts on his final monologue – about the ingratitude and ignorance of his students – while the remaining adults only just manage to discern his absence from the restaurant, which by now has grown to dim to make anything out clearly.
Yet lest that ending play out as too glibly satirical, or too emphatic in its distinction between the restaurant and outside world, Moverman opts for a second conclusion, in which Stan, Claire and Katelyn arrive at Stan’s house, where they discover Paul bent over double on the ground outside, and Beau barely breathing, but still alive, in the woods. Before anything can be resolved, Moverman ends mid-scene, at the same cusp or threshold between spaces and situations that has preoccupied the film as a whole, and before the confusion has had any chance to settle into a discernible or collective sense of what has happened. As with the ending to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the final note is chaos but in this case it’s not the controlled chaos of a dinner party, nor even the choreographed chaos of the last shot in The Sopranos (which it strongly recalls), but a more genuine randomness, as if the actors didn’t have any idea the film would end at this exact moment, and had actually continued filming until the scene had reached its putative conclusion. It’s a gesture of extreme incompetence and incoherence in a genre that usually guarantees competence and coherence more than any other, and yet in that gesture Moverman’s auteurism and ambition lies, as we remain exactly where we started, on the threshold of a bourgeois chamber drama that never exactly eventuates, and so is never exactly able to end either.