My Dinner With Andre has been on my radar for decades now. It seems like yesterday that Siskel & Ebert wouldn’t stop raving about it. In film circles (and probably non-film circles too) it has become somewhat of a joke. It is respected as a piece of art, but it is known more as the movie where two guys sit in a restaurant and talk for two hours. It is often cited as that inaccessible art film that makes no sense as entertainment. I’m sure many people have asked, “why would you want to watch a movie where two people just talk to each other?”
Even though I often appreciate dialog-driven movies, I prefer some engagement. Eric Rohmer is a good example of someone who makes “talky” movies, but at least his films are character driven and have a distinct plot – usually a romance. How would the plot of My Dinner with Andre be described? Before seeing it, I would probably sum it up like David Blakeslee’s tweet the other day.
I don’t want to steal David’s thunder. He has a blog over at Criterion Reflections where he tackles films chronologically by year. By the time he gets to 1981, I have a feeling he’ll have a little bit more to say.
Now that I’ve seen it, I would describe the plot as two friends meeting, one of whom is struggling to get his career going and the other having just emerged from a life-altering personal crisis. Their dinner conversation becomes a catharsis for both of them and they reach a new understanding about life and themselves. Even that is a simplification, but it’s a better description than most would give.
If not for this project, I may never have watched it, yet I’m glad that I did. As a warning, it is inaccessible, and it is a slog especially during the early going. However, once you get through the more arduous parts, it transforms into something special and is rewarding.
My biggest complaint is the first hour. Wallace Shawn (or “Wally,” as Andre calls him) is nervous about having dinner with someone who may be off his rocker, so he decides that he’ll be inquisitive and just ask questions. He sticks to this decision, but it is clear that his questions are no longer based in social anxiety, but instead fascinated curiosity. He gets Andre going, and to steal a word from David, that man can yak! He talks about everything from going to Poland to put on a play in a forest, theater troupes, Tibetan culture, Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Gregory’s Alice in Wonderland play, and scores of other stories. At one point when Wally asks a question, Andre chuckles. “You really want to hear this stuff?” he marvels. With a friend, one may be intrigued by endless stories and anecdotes. As a film-watcher, it was a test of patience.
When Wally starts chiming in is where the film finally finds its voice, and this is about the time I was reeled in. We had already learned about Andre’s philosophy of life, which is far from ordinary, and what most would think of as new-age, hippy nonsense. Wally could not be more different than Andre. For starters, he does not have the seemingly endless bank account. We don’t know how Andre maintains his standard of living and exotic trips, but Wally does not have that luxury. He had an upper-class background living in the Upper East Side, but as he establishes early on in the film, ”now at 34 as an actor and playwright, all I think about is money.”
You could say that Wally is a pragmatist, while Andre is a spiritualist. Wally appreciates the creature comforts that give him more convenience, whereas Andre would rather live with a life of austerity so that he can better enjoy the little pleasures. The film heats up in the second half as Wally comes out of his shell and challenges Andre’s assertions, the same ones that he was captivated by during the first hour of the dinner. There are a few topics that become points of contention, and these two intellectuals hash out which is right. There is no correct answer. The most important part, from both sides, is that the questions are asked.
During the early diatribe, Andre talks about how he occasioned on a surrealist magazine printed in the 1930s. He turned to a random page and found four names. Three of them were Andre and the other began with an A. There was also a reference to Alice in Wonderland, and he later found out the magazine was printed right before his birth. Andre took this as a sign. He was fated to pick up that magazine and derive meaning from it.
Wally returns to this story and basically calls him out for being self-absorbed. He sees it as a coincidence. There were many people involved with the creation of the magazine. Were all of their actions — including the writing, editing and page layout – all for the sole purpose that some playwright having a mid-life crisis 50 years later would find it meaningful? He calls that notion ridiculous. Inconceivable! (sorry)
Wally uses the example of a fortune cookie. Of course he will read his fortune and have some fun with it, but if it forbid him to do something, he would not pay it much mind. After all, the creators of the fortune probably wrote hundreds, all in a fortune cookie factory somewhere. How could this company of fortune cookie manufacturers have any practical insight into his life? It is pure coincidence in Wally’s mind.
The above example is just one of many. It is not just eastern versus western thought, but in a sense even science and technology versus religion and spirituality. It is deep. Even though they respectfully disagree on some points, like the magazine, they do see eye to eye on others. They agree that people are living without sensation. Andre calls these people brain dead. They need to be shaken up and given a jolt, but of course Wally sees going to the Himalayas and hanging out with Tibetans as overkill. They do agree that people need to somehow escape their dream lives and truly live.
Just because of the narration, we see the perspective of Wally. By the end of the film, yes after all courses (spoiler alert: they skip dessert and order espresso), he has reached a new level of understanding. He has been shaken up. While he isn’t about to start thumbing through surrealistic magazines or give up his electric blanket, he does realize that he has become distracted by the trappings of his life. If we were to see Andre Gregory’s perspective, he would have likely been similarly moved. He probably listened to Wally’s points that there can be practical constraints to abide and still life a fulfilling life.
Even though the barrier of entry is not exactly easy, once comfortably pulled up to the table, I was intrigued and moved. Many of the notions about how one lives their life are profound. While few would agree with all of their points, everyone can learn something about themselves in the faces and voices of Wally and Andre.
Film Rating: 8/10
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn: 2009 Interviews with Noah Baumbach.
Andre – Met Wallace Shawn (Wally) because he made an inquiry into one of Gregory’s plays. Shawn loved it so much that he wanted to go every night, but couldn’t afford a seat. So they gave him his own seat.
The idea came about because he had told Wally all of the stories, and it was Shawn’s idea to put them on paper. Gregory was sure that if it got made, that nobody except for their friends would want to see it.
Took it to Mike Nichols, who couldn’t do it. Through friends of friends, Louis Malle got the script and called him. He practically begged them to let him be involved, and insisted that there not be any visual distractions.
He uses four different voices in the film: 1) Theater guru. 2) Off the wall, spacey rich kid. 3) Spiritual used car salesman. 4) Sincere, later in the movie. This became a character based on Andre Gregory, but was not the real Andre.
Wallace – When he was 27, he had strong feelings about theater and was easily influenced. Fear has been a big part of his life. He was afraid to see anything in the theater that would compromise him. He was afraid to see the Andre Gregory version of Alice in Wonderland, but his friend urged him to see it. He was astounded. After seeing it a few times, he brought an envelope of his plays to Andre, but nobody liked them. Andre was the exception. He loved his plays and invited him to work with his company.
Malle was superb. He captured things in Andre that Shawn would not have expected. Even today Shawn cannot watch the film because it is too difficult. Off the set, Malle was “ill at ease,” but on the set he was affectionate and a tremendous storyteller.
The original script was three hours. They spent months cutting it down by an hour, and Louis cut down 15 more minutes in the editing room. It sounds like Shawn and Malle did not get along all that well. “He liked me as an actor,” … “but not as a writer.” Shawn said that he would have filmed the original script, so it sounds like they had some animosity about scenes being cut. As for Malle and the arguments about cutting scenes, “he lost a few, and won most of them.”
”My Dinner with Louis”
Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle meet at dinner for a 1982 BBC episode of Arena. They meet in Atlantic City, fittingly, and the episode is structured similarly as My Dinner With Andre, with Shawn giving the opening voiceover. They even show the intro to the film. One big difference between this dinner and the one with Andre is they use visual elements, such as clips and stills, which is more fitting given then subject.
This is the supplement I was looking forward to the most, and it delivered. I’m fascinated by Malle as both a director and a person. He doesn’t get the critical glory as a French New Wave director such as Godard and Truffaut, but you could argue that he’s taken more risks. This film is unquestionably a risk. One of my favorite film books was Malle on Malle because he tells such amazing stories. Here he talks about the controversies surrounding his films, beginning with The Lovers, continuing with Phantom India, Lacombe, Lucien, Atlantic City, and ending with My Dinner With Andre.
Criterion Rating: 7.0