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Entries in My Dinner with Andre [1981] (1)

Friday
Jan212011

My Dinner with Andre (1981) Home Video Review

Malle Content

We’re doomed.

Thirty years ago, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory wrote a script about themselves—or versions of themselves—sitting down to dinner and talking for two hours.  Their collaboration with director Louis Malle became My Dinner with Andre, a cutting, beautiful, important film that speaks to the American condition and whose message is just as important (and just as ignored) today as it was then.

You might think that watching two men eat French food while discussing the existential importance of Saharan sand and the evils of electric blankets would be a boring way to spend an afternoon.  Shawn and Gregory get heady, certainly, but their conversation is accessible to anyone who’s ever wondered if what they’re doing with their lives is the right thing, if they’re following a path that’s true to themselves.

I’m getting way ahead here.  The film opens with Wallace walking the streets of New York to meet Andre for dinner.  Through voiceover, we learn that he doesn’t particularly want to go, but does so as a favor to a friend who’d recently spotted Andre in a crying fit following an Ingmar Bergman movie.  We also learn that Wallace was once a privileged kid who took his advantages for granted, and now finds himself a mid-thirties playwright struggling to pay the bills.  Andre, a retired stage director, had disappeared a few years earlier, and resurfaced with a bevy of strange behaviors that his old circle didn’t understand.  Wallace reluctantly agrees to get to the bottom of Andre’s mystery over a fine meal of wine and quail.

The movie unfolds in real time, and for the first hour one gets the feeling that the only reason the Wallace character was created was to have someone to cut back to occasionally for reaction shots as Andre monologues about his adventures.  From dancing with an acting commune in the woods of Poland to attending a New Age baptism in Scotland, he tells story after story of his frustrating quest for self-actualization; often leaving his wife and children for long stretches, he once returned home with a monk, who moved in with them.

Eventually, Wallace chimes in with protestations about how dreadful Andre’s lack of security must be; he says he enjoys the comforts of the leisurely party-going lifestyle, where at the end of the day he can curl up with his wife, a glass of wine, and his fancy, new electric blanket.

Here the talk turns confrontational, as Andre (and the film) gets to his thesis—that modern society has so lulled people into a constant craving for ease that they have forgotten how to be alive.  Robots, he calls them, shuffling through life performing the tasks they were raised and conditioned to accept as “the way things are”.  Andre posits that government and media have dulled the collective conscience in ways that have fundamentally changed human decency and connectedness.

Up to this point, Andre has gotten all the best lines and hero shots from Malle’s understated yet very telling camerawork—leading one to think that My Dinner with Andre is a straight polemic meant to “wake up” the audience.  But Shawn and Gregory don’t let Andre off the hook.  Some of his stories are unbelievable, and some of his ideas are hard to swallow (like building a house with a detached roof that’s held down by stones so that it can be easily levitated by UFOs); Wallace calls him on his nutty talk and defends his own sheepish lifestyle.

Depending on your perspective, you might take Wallace’s high-pitched, gasping defensiveness to mean either insecurity or confident outrage, but he throws all of Andre’s arguments back in his face in a way that shatters the heretofore even-temperedness of the discussion.

To his credit, Andre gives it back, in a cool tone that says he may be completely crazy, but at least he’s centered.

Or is he?  The movie is very guarded in its opinion of Andre.  On one hand, he’s spent several years traveling the world, trying everything to find inner peace; on the other hand, he’s spent several years traveling the world, trying everything to find inner peace.  The look on his face is one of resignation, with flashes of half-remembered glee—as if he’d come close to figuring it all out before settling back into his own limitations as a flawed New Yorker.

His successes and failures got me to wondering what the hell I’ve done with my life.  Beyond the wife and kid and nice career and leisure time in which to watch and review movies; have I explored my full potential as a human being?  Is it a karmic sin to know that there are people on the other side of the world who go to bed hungry every night, while I—aware of their plight—continue to go to a 9 to 5 job that does absolutely nothing to make the world a better place?  Is it better to be awake or asleep?

Some of these questions were tackled in The Matrix.  But unlike that movie, My Dinner with Andre takes the subject matter seriously.  It may seem a silly film to bring up here, but it represents the dearth of cultural and mental nutrition that Andre talks about; the mass-produced, mass-marketed escapism that, if it challenges anyone’s perceptions at all, quickly devolves into computer-effects, explosions, and blockbuster sequels.  We rarely stop to question what we’re escaping from, do we?  Or, for that matter, where we’re escaping to.

If you haven’t guessed by now, My Dinner with Andre affected me deeply.  By the end, I was wiping away tears of recognition—for the first time in years I really thought about myself and my place in the world.  Through what amounted to a couple hours of mental gymnastics and good, old-fashioned storytelling, Shawn and Gregory invited me to open my mind to the possibility of changing things up; to reconnecting with the playful, pure part of myself that used to run wild before words like “mortgage”, “management”, and “fatherhood” entered my vocabulary.

I highly recommend this movie; even if you don’t care about all this hippie bullshit, watch it for the performances; watch it for the way Malle keeps a static setting interesting using only close-ups and cutaways.  If you do care about this hippie bullshit, you’ll find a whole lot to consider, via rich dialogue delivered by superb actors (particularly Gregory, whose performance is hypnotic; Shawn doesn’t fare as well in the early scenes, as he tends to nod his head in agreement too much).

My Dinner with Andre is a life-affirming, potentially life-changing movie, and the fact that it’s not a classic revered on the level of Star Wars tells me that there are way too many Wallaces out there and not enough Andres.  Consider, too, that this movie was made before the billion-and-one diversions that have come to define modern man.  Given what Andre thinks of the low-brow early-80s theatre scene, I can only imagine what he'd have to say about what texting has done to hobble attention spans, manners and grammar.  When was the last time you asked someone under thirty a question to which they answered, "I don't know"?  I'd wager they paused the conversation just long enough to find the answer on their phone and then read to you what came up on the screen.

Like I said, we’re doomed.