My Dinner with Andre will forever be known as the film that consists only of two hours of dinner conversation, yet never becomes boring. What at first might seem an artsy exercise quickly becomes a fascinating investigation of diverging personal philosophies, from the inside out. After ten years of working together, playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory developed a film script by editing transcripts of their own conversations. The actor-writers are very aware that, even though they "play" themselves, what they present is an altered self-image. As Mr. Gregory points out, he recognizes his true self in the film only when he's too busy speaking to be consciously acting.
In a movie about two people talking, the talk is the thing -- and My Dinner with Andre doesn't disappoint. "Wally" is a struggling playwright who feels uneasy about meeting his old friend Andre, a theater director of independent wealth who hasn't worked in New York for several years. Rumors have been circulating that Andre is having emotional problems, or worse. Wally waits for his friend at an expensive restaurant, wondering if the dinner appointment is a mistake. But Andre arrives happy to see him and eager to talk.
Andre initially carries most of the conversation. We identify with Wally as he tries to get a purchase on Andre's account of his recent exploits. In the past few seasons Andre had taken part in a wild theatrical adventure in a Polish forest, journeyed to the Sahara with an eastern monk, and participated in a transcendental theatrical-communal experiment in Scotland. Some of Andre's tales sound like flaky New Age hype, as he describes perceptual miracles and trance-like "happenings" with 40 young actors forced to communicate without language. Wally may wonder if he's being sold a bill of goods, but it soon becomes apparent that Andre is entirely in earnest. As conversations of this kind often do, the subject can change at a moment's notice. Andre's observations seem sane and thoughtful -- and often inspired.
We gauge our own responses to Andre's, to see if we agree or disagree, approve or disapprove. When the talk veers off into contemplations of larger issues -- how people should live, whether or not we're all existing in a state of robotic routines -- My Dinner with Andre connects to those soul searching conversational all-nighters we remember from college. Andre's revelations often seem profound even when he claims to have learned little from his experiences. Wally finds his friend as fascinating as ever: Too sincere to be a dilettante and too authentic to be a pretender.
Wally mostly listens for more than half the sit-down, but not out of passivity. He eventually challenges some of what Andre says, at one point even asking permission to be completely honest. Andre's been extolling the benefits of lifestyle experimentation, with descriptions of difficult-to-picture events like bringing his monk friend home for an indefinite stay with the family. While we're wondering what kind of saint Andre's wife must be, Wally voices his doubts. Andre's description of his utopian sojourn in Scotland includes more than a few wild claims, like the assertion that the little clan worked out a psychic arrangement with the garden pests, convincing the insects to infest only a part of their vegetable patch. On the evidence of a couple of coincidences, Andre also insists that he has a privileged spiritual relationship with Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.
Wally makes an alternate case for a lifestyle that doesn't require exotic adventures. He's been scraping by, making do with less and enjoying simple pleasures with his wife, and believes that everyday living can be just as meaningful. Andre naturally comes back with reasoned and thoughtful ripostes to Wally's objections, but he doesn't insist that his friend agree with him. My Dinner with Andre places us in the middle of an interesting philosophical discussion. We notice that whenever an extreme example is needed, Andre will return to the subject of Naziism. He tells an odd story about a flag with a design that includes a traditional Tibetan swastika. Is the liberated Andre revealing an unconscious obsession?
Director Louis Malle stages this intimate, unbroken conversation in the midst of a busy restaurant. Wally keeps making eye contact with the waiter; Andre is clearly more comfortable in such expensive surroundings. The background noise slowly dies away as the evening grows late and the dialogue focuses on their private thoughts. In no way a filmic stunt, My Dinner with Andre is a completely different kind of theatrical meditation.
Criterion's DVD of My Dinner with Andre is a fine enhanced transfer made directly from original 16mm elements. The expected grain is present but the range of color is unhindered -- the cold, blue New York streets contrast with the warm colors inside the restaurant.
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach conducts lengthy, separate interviews with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Between the two gentlemen and an insert booklet essay by Amy Taubin we learn quite a bit about the eccentric film. It wasn't just thrown together. Director Malle filmed for two weeks in a specially built set, and what seems like a spontaneous conversation was carefully written and directed. Andre Gregory remembers Malle pulling his performance away from stage exaggeration, down to the level of subtle facial responses. When "Wally" finally asserts his own opinion, we remember the way the light hits his blue eyes, which suddenly become clear and purposeful: Wally is not as insecure as he claims.
Wallace Shawn played a small part in Louis Malle's Atlantic City. For a BBC TV show included on the disc he conducts a career interview with Malle on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The personable Frenchman describes his filmic rebellion against his wealthy background, and explains how he tried never to repeat himself in his choice of movie subjects. Malle's last film Vanya on 42nd Street would reunite the director with Shawn and Gregory as collaborators.
My Dinner With Andre is available now from The Criterion Collection.
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