The other day I was looking over my finances which is never my favorite thing. I thought about when my next pay check was coming in, the bills I had to pay, the groceries I had to get, then the extra money I was saving for a trip, along with some other odds and ends in my life. At one point during this day, I realized I was thinking too much about money, and I didn’t like it. This reminded me of the opening moments of “My Dinner with Andre”, a film that means very much to me, where we see writer/actor Wallace Shawn in voice over talking about when he was young and how all he would think about was music and art, and now he is 36 and all he thinks about now is money. When that sentiment popped into my head, I thought it was time to revisit “My Dinner with Andre” , a film that can take you out of those basic worries life gives you, and lets you forget them by offering up a stimulating conversation between two old friends during dinner.
“My Dinner with Andre” opens with Shawn’s character walking the streets of New York and musing about his current status as a working artist, doing the errands of his trade as a playwright, making copies of his plays, and sending them to theatre companies with the hope they will get produced. He talks about how he had to become an actor in order to support his work as a writer. He seems depressed as he mentions how he would want nothing more than to go home and enjoy a nice meal with his girlfriend, but she had to take up a second job as a waitress in order to pay the bills. So instead he has agreed to see his friend Andre Gregory, a theatre director he has lost touch with over the years, and who, rumor has it seems to have been going through some sort of a breakdown. At the beginning we see Shawn’s anxiety with meeting Andre not sure of what to expect, but then soon the two meet at a restaurant, and the rest of the film is spent in conversation.
At the beginning, Shawn is the passive listener as Gregory speaks about his many travels and experiences in places like Tibet, and the Sahara, meeting strange groups of people, and even being part of a bizarre ritual where he is put into a coffin buried alive for half an hour one Halloween night. Shawn who seems to be the more meek of the two holds back playing very much the keen observer wanting to learn more usually just piping up with a “then what happened” now and then, or sometimes seguing the conversation into another topic by bringing up a piece of theatre Andre might’ve seen. Soon enough, the conversation turns into more of a back and forth as the two men move into their views on life, and their own personal philosophies on love, death, and humanities basic existence in the world.
This may all sound too cerebral, or too heady, but the magic of “My Dinner with Andre” is how accessible it is. The film is stimulating because the conversation itself keeps you invested, it’s a wonderful little experiment thanks mostly to Shawn and Gregory who created the script based on multiple conversations they had together which they recorded into a cohesive piece.
The conversation itself is organic as most conversations seem to be, the talking goes in and out from one subject to another, then going back again, it’s engaging because the actors themselves are engaged, sometimes as the viewer it’s difficult to not want to climb into the screen and join in.
In a lot of ways “My Dinner with Andre” is a miracle it should work as a film at all, in that it betrays the one element of what film really is meant to do which is showing not saying. The film is really all saying, other filmmakers might have been more keen on conveying the stories of Andre’s adventures in other countries in a more cinematic way, maybe using re-creations or flashbacks as a narrative device, instead it stays on basic close-ups and two shots of the two men. This is not saying the film isn’t cinematic, in fact it kinda goes with the philosophy that all you need for a film is a face.
The film was directed by Louis Malle, who was one of the principle filmmakers or the French New Wave, along with Truffaut, Godard, Agnes Varda, and Alain Resnais. Malle made a lot of great and interesting films, from documentaries to autobiographical films, but unlike his contemporaries, I wouldn’t say he was ever pigeonholed into a distinct style. He approaches “My Dinner with Andre” with a visual flare that doesn’t undercut the basic conversation. Look at the moment where Andre is talking about his haunting and terrifying experience being buried alive, it’s the only time I notice a push in from the camera to the face, and the only moment Shawn seems to disappear from the film entirely, as the memory is very personal and vivid for Gregory to remember. The camera is mostly just punctuating his horrifying story, it’s small but very effective.
“My Dinner with Andre” never feels static, it’s a very alive and vibrant film, it sort of has that youthful energy of those later Richard Linklater films particularly his experimentally animated “Waking Life” which is a series of conversations with different philosophers and the “Before” trilogy which also borrows the idea of a conversation carrying an entire movie, but in that instance shows how two people who are so connected in a conversation were meant to be together.
I feel like I saw “My Dinner with Andre” at the right time in my life, it was a few years ago when criterion released their DVD copy of it. It was at the time in my life I was still experiencing different and experimental films, and as myself was still trying to figure out my place in the world. “My Dinner with Andre” doesn’t really have much of a story, it’s about what is said, the stories these two men share, and the time they have spent together. At the end of the film, Shawn is leaving the restaurant in a taxi reflecting on his dinner with Andre passing by the different buildings and shops, each one he says carries a different story about his youth. Shawn seems more engaged with life than he was at the beginning, more content, and I think that is what you get when you walk out of this film. We’ve all had those moments where we are with friends, having dinner, having coffee, having a glass of wine talking about life whatever that is to us. “My Dinner with Andre” is a reminder that those moments are good for us, they are like a cleansing of the pallet, you are refreshed afterwards, and more engaged with the world than maybe you were before.