Movies We Like
My Dinner with Andre
French director Louis Malle’s incredibly diverse career ranged from the exciting rule-bending era of the French New Wave to his documentary period, his work during the cinema revolution of the ‘70s, and finally to his American phase. Perhaps no film was more ground breaking then his astonishingly simple, yet hugely entertaining My Dinner with Andre—what is essentially a couple hours of two men who hadn’t seen each other in some time having a fascinating discussion over dinner.
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both known from the New York cultural and theater scene, play “Andre Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn,” which is to say they play themselves or at least variations on themselves. In real life Gregory had made a name for himself as an experimental theater director, traveling the world in search of groovy artistic expression. (He was a sometimes actor post-My Dinner with Andre, most memorably as John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ). Shawn, the son of legendary long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn (which gave him lifelong NY high-brow street-cred) had some success as an off-off Broadway playwright, but ever since Woody Allen cast him as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Manhattan he has worked steadily as a character actor. The two started to record their own conversations and then got director Malle involved to help shape it into a script.
Obviously the film is through the eyes of Shawn (he’s the “My” in the title). Opening with his narration, he explains that even though life is not going well recently he is dreading having to meet an old acquaintance, Andre, for dinner. He’s heard that Andre was telling people at a dinner party that he can talk to trees. Once the meal and conversation get rolling he becomes completely absorbed in Andre’s stories of Transcendental Meditation while working with theater groups around the world, where he came to fully appreciate life.
The script is mostly one long monologue by Gregory that gets more and more intellectually ridiculous as he references historical figures and literature (often far beyond an undergraduate education). First he calls The Little Prince “sentimental for SS men” but then adapts it into a play anyway. His spiritual theatrical quest took him on adventures in Poland (with famed director Jerzy Grotowski), India, and Scotland that included far-out workshops, asking bees to leave flowers alone, UFOs and hovering stones, talking fauns, running through forests naked, and being buried alive (for spiritual soul cleansing reasons). Though his thoughts on modern society, especially in New York, about the idea that we are all becoming numb robots may be apt, his rant leads him to slowly debase everyday life and most basic understandings of human relationships and casual experiences.
The mostly passive Shawn tries to keep up with Gregory intellectually and spiritually, discussing his electric blanket (Gregory is very anti-electric blanket). But then in as exciting a moment that a film about two men chatting over dinner can have he finally begins to question Gregory’s fantastic experiences and as he gains his confidence he is forced to defend the simplicity of his own existence and therefore symbolically defend Western modern civilization on the whole (this would be the equal to a cool car chase for most other films). In the film’s epic Lord of the Rings-like finale Shawn declares, “I'm just trying to earn a living, just trying to pay my rent and my bills. I mean, I live my life, I enjoy staying home with Debby and I'm reading Charlton Heston's autobiography and that's that.” Bravo. It’s more exciting than the last three Indiana Jones movies combined!
After a decade of Woody Allen pushing the boundaries of NY intellectual verbal comedy, My Dinner with Andre turns it up to eleven. The humor is in both the wit and the sad soul-searching for some kind of meaning in life. Though Gregory, full of bluster, is the more confident of the two, by the end of their meal and conversation it’s clear that he is a completely lost soul. Shawn is obviously disappointed where his life has not taken him but he has accepted his fate and is comfortable with his lot, making him the more rational of the two. His narration at the beginning and end gives the film bookends that are very moving. He enters the films with dread but ends up feeling better about himself and learns to appreciate the simplicity of his existence.
On paper and by reputation My Dinner with Andre is that little movie about two guys talking. But the stories told are epic and grand, making the film more of a satisfying adventure than flicks that define themselves with thrills. The conversation and where it goes is enlightening, quietly exciting, and ultimately mesmerizing. As a follow-up to his equally brilliant Atlantic City, director Malle found two more souls taking a journey through a crumbling landscape in their hearts and with his two unlikely stars he’s pulled off the almost impossible; if nothing else, My Dinner with Andre is easily the greatest film about two guys chatting over dinner ever made.