My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Written by Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn
Directed by Louis Malle
Growing up, I heard about My Dinner with Andre in the context of making fun of it. As a young person with limited knowledge of film & art, it did sound like a silly idea for a movie. Two people at dinner talking in real-time. My expectation of film was that you would have the standard five-act structure with conflicts and character arcs. These seemed like a super boring and dumb idea. It became a movie that kept coming up on lists and in internet discourse, so that I developed some respect for it from a distance, still having not watched it. Now I can say it’s one of the best films I’ve watched this year and is a challenging but also easily accessible watch. We’ve all had dinner with people we maybe weren’t elated to see and had to converse with them. In that way, My Dinner with Andre is about a universal experience.
Wallace is a struggling playwright who has recently been contacted by an old acquaintance, theater director Andre. Wallace would prefer not to meet with him, but Andre insists, so they come together at an old-school French restaurant in their shared home of New York City. Andre spends the first hour of the conversation detailing his life since he quit the theater in 1975. He’s traveled around the globe engaging with experimental arts groups to try out looking at performance in new ways. Eventually, Wallace speaks up, and it’s clear he doesn’t agree with everything Andre has been talking about. The film doesn’t end with a tidy resolution as the men are asked to leave with the restaurant closing for the night.
The film’s origins came from Andre Gregory’s desire to write an autobiography and Shawn’s concept of performance with just two people talking over dinner. They decided a film would be better than a play and were eventually contacted by Louis Malle, who wanted to direct after reading it. Malle was a very well-known French director that had won numerous awards for his work. It’s important to note that in an interview many years later, Shawn clarified that while these characters bear their names, the actors are not playing themselves. Instead, he said in writing and making this movie, he wanted to destroy whatever part of himself might have been the Wallace Shawn we see in the story.
The film’s overarching theme is the question, “Should people live in spontaneity all the time, taking life as it comes?” Andre says yes to this as he details the wild & fascinating theater exercise he’s taken part in and how they affected him in the years that followed. He describes a Halloween performance on Long Island that ended with members of the cast being mock buried alive by other cast members. You can see the conviction on his face that he went through a psychological death doing this and came out on the other end, having his thinking altered. There are also questions about the purpose of theater, and Andre believes that theater has a deadening effect.
Wallace argues that theater should reflect society and illuminate new thinking in the audience’s minds. Andre fires back that by showing people how terrible the world is, you confirm what they already subconsciously know, and as a defense mechanism, they bury their heads further. Andre’s point of view on theater is that it should open the audience’s mind to new possibilities, that dreamy escapism is an antidote to the drudgery of existence. Andre’s travels show him taking in the way people live outside of the bubble he used to be in. Some communes become extended families. He even tells of a Japanese monk who moves into his home and quickly becomes the central figure in the household.
One of Andre’s central beliefs comes from the discourse he shared with a Polish theater director who also quit. The Pole explains that people are putting on fantastic acting performances in everyday life; he simply can’t compete with the stage. Andre further states that science has become a new form of magic, most people don’t understand it really, but they submit to the idea that it will inevitably solve their problems, so they disengage. He also speaks about the idea that the modern city is a prison willingly constructed and inhabited by the inmates. People have become so scared of the uncertain elements of living that they exchanged their humanity for a form of mindlessness.
My Dinner with Andre was quite a nice watch, and I never felt like it bored me or was disengaging. The performers are two brilliant people, and the script is so well written it’s a treat to watch. I think the movie serves as an exceptionally lovely palette cleanser in the wake of some of the frenzied filmmaking of today. Pictures like these are delightful to me because they play with what we expect a movie to be. You wouldn’t think two theater people sharing dinner would be interesting, but they have such substantial things to talk about that you can’t help but listen in.