My Dinner With André (1981)
Dir. Louis Malle
Scr. Wallace Shawn, André Gregory
Starring: André Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I've always loved this movie. When I first saw it theatrically in 1981, I was a mere twenty-two years of age, but had already seen thousands of movies. I quickly realized, however, that I'd never seen anything like this one. On every level, the writing, acting and direction is of the highest calibre, but most of all the thing I've carried with me ever since, is the feeling that I was literally under a hypnotic spell. I was all there, all the time, my eyes glued to the screen and completely unable to concentrate upon anything else.
Here's the rub, though. My Dinner With Andre is literally what the title says it is. The playwright Wally (Wallace Shawn) informs us he has not seen his old friend and theatre colleague Andre (Andre Gregory) for years and accepts an invitation to dinner in a high-toned Manhattan restaurant.
They meet, greet, eat, talk, then say goodbye. On the surface, that's it.
Of course there's so much more.
Wally gets a complete, detailed rundown on everything Andre's been up to which feels like a thoroughly engaging verbal travelogue, though often, the chat dovetails into the kind of highly literate philosophizing that one might expect from these two brilliant men. Wally is primarily the listener, but when he interjects, his responses, more often than not, are the kind of concise intelligent responses someone like Andre needs, as, of course. does Wally.
As do we all.
Andre's storytelling is riveting - neither Wally nor the audience is any less than transfixed and there are plenty of laughs mixed with the stories and ruminations. Some of them are downright revelatory in terms of the world we (and they) live in and indeed provide numerous touchstones that we've either experienced ourselves, or in some cases, hope to eventuality discover on our own travels.
What's astonishing now, years after growing with the film for some thirty-plus years, especially on subsequent viewings, is to discover just how relevant the discussions are to the early eighties, but most importantly how they build and grow over the years.
What's revealed to us is prescient in ways few films ever are. Given the madness the world has lived in since 9/11 with war, financial collapse and corruption at the highest levels of both government and business, one of Andre's speeches is unbelievably chilling in a contemporary context when he offers:
"We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you Wally that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks and it's not just a question of individual survival Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep, and somebody who's asleep will not say no?""A world totalitarian government based on money", indeed. In 1982 this was already a concern, but in 2015 this basic fact/fear has never been more prevalent.
At one point, Andre explains how much he wants to leave New York. The city feels like a prison in that comfort is mere acquiescence to forces much greater than humanity. He explains this notion by accusing all New Yorkers, and by extension, anyone living in an urban environment as existing in "a state of schizophrenia. They're both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to even see it as a prison.
Again, we're faced with a chilling notion that acts like some mirror Andre holds up to all our faces. Wally argues, perhaps even on our behalf:
"I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. . .I'm not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I'm trying to protect myself because, really, there's these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!"Wally expresses our point of view and we accept it gladly, but Andre further explains that "comfort can be dangerous" because it can "lull you into a dangerous tranquility".
And damn if he isn't right.
Andre has been to several corners of the earth to find a spiritual transcendence and he indeed discovers it in a series of theatre experiments in deep, dark forests which break all boundaries and carry the participants to a place that was like "a human Kaleidoscope". Even as he says this, we see this kaleidoscope - not literally, of course, but because director Louis (Atlantic City, Lacombe Lucien, Au revoir les enfants) Malle's precise and consistent mise-en-scene takes us there by keeping clear focus upon the faces of his subjects and creates a rhythm which allows us to be lulled into an acquiescence to the stories, philosophy and conversations.
Of course, the screenplay by Shawn and Gregory is rife with some of the best writing you'll ever experience in a film. Towards the picture's conclusion we're awash in a state of melancholy as we've been forced to think about our own lives and piteous place in a world and universe we have so little control over.
Then it's Wally, during the film's conclusion as he continues to be our surrogate.
He expresses the greatest truth of all:
"I treated myself to a taxi. I rode home through the city streets. There wasn't a street, there wasn't a building, that wasn't connected to some memory in my mind. There, I was buying a suit with my father. There, I was having an ice cream soda after school. And when I finally came in, Debbie was home from work, and I told her everything about my dinner with Andre."It is in the crystalline remembrance of our lives and the ability to share those experiences which is finally the genuinely and deeply moving core of My Dinner With Andre, a film that is not only original and powerful, but one we must hold dear to.
And you know, the picture will live forever. No matter what happens in our lives and the world at large, the alternately terrible and beauteous truths is what rests finally at the root of humanity.
We have art to thank for this and surely we must thank Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory for giving us this dazzling lesson in how, ideally, we should all strive to hold dear our sense of place and worth.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** Five Stars
My Dinner With Andre is available on a great Criterion Blu-Ray, one its own or in a fabulous box which includes A Master Builder and Vanya on 42nd Street. The gorgeously produced Blu-Ray for this film comes with a lovely High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, an interview from 2009 with actor-writers André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, conducted by their friend, filmmaker Noah Baumbach (so good one wishes it was several hours long), “My Dinner with Louis,” a 1982 episode of the BBC program Arena in which Shawn interviews director Louis Malle (so amazing that one wonders why such incisive TV programming is not produced today), an essay by critic Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Gregory and Shawn for the 1981 publication of the film’s screenplay.
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