Review by Michael Nordine
Posted on 29 November 2010
Source Criterion Collection DVD
You really want to hear about this?”
For the uninitiated, the briefest of plot summaries: two men meet for dinner at a restaurant in New York. In real time. For almost two hours. Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is made up almost entirely of a discussion between its two main characters, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (who also co-wrote the screenplay), both of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves. But this isn’t typical dinner conversation: Andre talks of Dionysian gatherings in the forests of Poland; of a Japanese monk/houseguest who lived with him for six months; and, at great lengths, death.
For a film about so much, it is perhaps unsurprising that its intricate verbal paths - like all others - ultimately lead here. One of the chief lessons Andre’s time abroad instilled in him is that to know what it means to truly be alive is to finally become cognizant of one’s mortality. “To be connected to everything,” he says, invoking Walt Whitman, “is to be connected to death.” The question thus becomes how one should live: in the moment, unaware of one’s actions, or savoring every bit of it. This is perhaps the biggest point of contention between the two men, as well as My Dinner with Andre’s thematic topsoil. Every other topic of discussion is somehow linked to it, underlining the inherent connectivity between all things in a fashion far more convincing than the globetrotting, ensemble-laden films of late. Gregory and Shawn (who both have two first names) aptly show that words can be more effective than the cinematic contrivances often resorted to in other movies.
Like the conversation itself, the latent meaning of the film seems to morph. My Dinner with Andre at first seems to be about where we end up and how we get there, with a hint of longing for the simplicity of childhood. Wally tells us through voiceover how he hasn’t seen Andre in years and isn’t particularly excited about meeting him now; as often happens between friends, the two have drifted apart. This is made stranger still by the knowledge (especially now, nearly thirty years after the film’s release) that this one night is just one point in their lives, just as fleeting as the others the two spend so much time discussing. But then the men’s conversation shifts gears, and so too do their implications: first a passing reference to Alice in Wonderland, then an argument over coincidence versus fate. The two of them incessantly volley back and forth, broaching much but settling on little. Many potential conclusions emerge from the rubble, one of which (from a present-day viewing, at least) is that the problems of today are those of 1981 brought to a boil—My Dinner with Andre is often celebrated for its audacity but has now reached the point where it deserves similar credit for its prescience.
There are few clear lines of division to be found in the film. Though Wally is far more reserved than Andre (who seems to have no trouble in laying his cards flat on the table), the two ultimately amount to different sides of the same coin. This is most readily apparent in their involvement in theater: Wally is a playwright and actor; Andre is a director. Their contrasting approaches toward their craft are indicative of their thoughts on life as a whole: Andre is of the improvisatory, experimental sort, while Wally, as a playwright, favors a more careful, planned-out approach. Extending this reveals two differing takes on the creation of the self, as well as their apparent consequences: Andre’s nerves are shot, and Wally is immersed in worries about money, work, and so on. In short, neither is entirely happy, though for wildly different reasons. When the two come together the way they might have as children, the eventual result is a somewhat curative one that puts an optimistic turn on a film otherwise steeped in darkness.
The first hour or so is dominated - or tamed, as he might say - almost entirely by Andre. This is to Wally’s liking: he likens himself to a sort of private investigator who enjoys asking others questions, likely to divert attention away from himself. For a while, it works. Andre is happy to regale Wally with such singularly odd tales as eating sand in the desert (“We were searching for something, but we couldn’t tell if we were finding anything”) and traveling to and fro. Part of what makes these early scenes (if they can even be called that) so compelling is the marked contrast between the almost supernatural stories being told and the film’s highly quotidian mise-en-scène. Malle often manages to make us forget that the lion’s share of this picture is static, a feat in itself. Far from a visual treat, the film’s decidedly spartan aesthetic is not a triumph of cinematography, but rather an aggressively minimalist means of putting the dialogue front and center. Somehow, it works: Malle’s approach here could be said to be one-sided, but it’s also successful in conveying his primary focal points.
In what amounts to the most troubling tangent of all, Andre equates New York City to a self-perpetuating concentration camp built by the dual inmate-guards who live in it. Horrible as it is, none of them ever leave due to a warped sense of pride in their creation. This is My Dinner with Andre at its darkest, and its poignance is doubled by the fact that Malle witnessed a number of his schoolmates get carted off to death camps as a young child (see: Au revoir, les enfants). Horrors of SoHo notwithstanding, the idea underscores the fact that My Dinner with Andre is at once rooted in its setting but also applicable elsewhere. Doubtless many of the city-dwellers of today feel just as Andre did thirty years ago - before cellphones and iPods added to the constant noise of the streets - yet few seem inclined to take the requisite action to change anything.
You see, I keep thinking that what we need is a new language—a language of the heart, a language, as in the Polish forest, where language wasn’t needed. Some kind of language between people that is a new kind of poetry, that’s the poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is. And I think that in order to create that language you’re going to have to learn how you can go through a looking glass into another kind of perception where you have that sense of being united to all things, and, suddenly, you understand everything.”
The moment Andre finishes this, the most lyrical and convincing of his often long-winded speeches, a siren can be heard in the background. It’s one last unsettling punctuation mark to a night in which many questions are asked and few are answered. Such is the nature of these conversations; such is the nature of life.
By dinner’s end, little seems to have changed. (How often does one conversation change anyone’s firmly held beliefs?) But then something funny happens: Wally treats himself to a taxi ride home and seems to look upon the streets he’s seen all his life slightly differently. It’s as if, for just a moment, his perception has been altered.
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