in Criterion Month

My Dinner with André (1981)

Going into My Dinner with André, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the movie was a vaguely real-time conversation taking place over the course of a dinner, but I didn’t really know what the conversation would be about. Would it be a profound discussion about the meaning of life? An insightful take on show business? A dated, vestigial story about life in the early Eighties? The truth is that My Dinner with André is many of those things, but what it is is a movie about imagination.

The film begins with Wally (Wallace Shawn) making his way to the restaurant where he’s agreed to meet his old friend Andre (Andre Gregory), who he hasn’t seen in years. Wally is a playwright who has taken up acting to pay the bills, and Andre is, or at least was, a gifted theatre director. As we watch Wally take the subway and walk down the streets of Manhattan, he admits via narration that he is nervous because of some pretty crazy rumors he’s heard about Andre. So naturally when they meet, their conversation focuses mostly on what exactly Andre had been doing since they last met.

Andre explains his previous frustration with his career and wild artistic reinvention he has gone on over the past half decade. He talks about going to live in the woods with actors who speak different languages, doing free-form, pure theater for each other’s benefit. About living in the desert and bringing a monk home to live with his family in the city. About bizarre Halloween performance art that included him being stripped down and buried alive. It’s quite a lot to take in, but Andre believes these are the kind of experiences people should be trying to take in.

At this point the conversation broadens into much loftier subjects. Wally rejects Andre’s thesis, suggesting that the types of experiences Andre has had are unrealistic for the average person. He brings up the joys of creature comforts and suggests contentment as his real goal, not enlightenment. Regardless, they bond about other subjects, like social norms and egomania. Eventually even dessert is finished and they must part for the night, having said so much but without resolving anything.

What’s amazing about My Dinner with André is how universal the conversation these characters are having is, despite the fact that I have little in common with them. I don’t work in the theatre, I’m not even passionate about it, I don’t have kids, I’m not a world traveler or a New Yorker, and of course I’m writing this 36 years later in a world that has changed immensely. But Wally and Andre’s frustrations about society, capitalism, life, and boredom are still extremely resonant, even if the specifics might have changed. It’s a great reminder that life, for the most part, has always meant as much to everyone who’s ever lived.

But where the movie deserves more credit, I think, is in its direction. French filmmaker Louis Malle (because I can’t get enough of French filmmakers this marathon) directed My Dinner with André, and he did so much more than simply plopping a camera in front of a table and letting it run for an hour and a half. With slow, subtle camera moves and meticulously planned shots, Malle puts the viewer directly into the conversation. Even though he never showed anything but Andre, I have vivid images in my head of that forest in Poland and the Japanese monk who lived with Andre’s family. Somehow he exploited my own imagination and showed me a bigger world, in the same way Andre is trying to teach Wally to broaden his own horizons beyond his cozy apartment and his warm cup of coffee.

Which brings me to my own concern, which is that the character I identified with is Wally. I totally am the dude who rolls his eyes at someone’s amazing adventures but can talk passionately about how awesome electric blankets are. Wallace Shawn has stated that he is not Wally, and that he “wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.” Which… Uh oh, maybe I’m in trouble here.