A film by Louis Malle, 1981, 110 minutes
By Maria Bazhlekova
“All I thought about was art and music, now all I think about is money,” says Wallace Shawn in his narration at the start of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. Wallace Shawn is a clear-eyed, pragmatic New Yorker who has been roped into having dinner with an old friend named Andre Gregory. Gregory is an uninhibited, idealistic, experimental theater director. The conflict of the film, which almost entirely takes place during a dinner conversation between these men, arises from the differences in these men’s personalities. Andre Gregory is the last individual on the planet who would ever say that all he thinks about nowadays is money.
Since both men play characters with the same back-stories and names as themselves, one has to wonder about how much is real, how much is scripted and how much is acted. The conversation opens up with Gregory recounting his experiences of teaching an acting workshop in the Polish forest, spending time with a Japanese monk in the Sahara and ultimately living through a terrifying experience on Long Island where he faced the illusion of being buried alive and thus put a stop to his travels. He recalls the visceral reactions he has had to these events and leaves the viewer wondering: is Gregory insane? Is he a theatrical genius? Does this man have life figured out or is he living in an illusion just like the rest of us? Is this even the real Andre Gregory? The fact that Shawn and Gregory both come from theater backgrounds adds an interesting layer to the film when one is considering its roots in reality.
Shawn spends the first half of the film as a passive listener. He only joins the conversation to ask Gregory to expand on his stories. The film really picks up, however, when Wallace Shawn joins the conversation. He challenges Gregory’s ideas about how to find happiness and meaning in life with his own practical and levelheaded views. As a viewer it’s easy to find oneself switching sides. At first, while listening to Gregory recall his exciting travels and experiences one feels like he or she won’t truly have lived until he or she has experienced these things. It takes Shawn to challenge those ideas to make one realize that there is more life to be found, as he puts it, in the contents of a cigar store down the street then at the top of Mt. Everest. As he says, it’s just not possible to send everyone to Mt. Everest and what happens to those who will never have the means to go? They’re left to figure out their own happiness where they are. Both men agree that many people live like zombies and go through the motions of life very mechanically but they couldn’t have more different views on how to break the cycle.
It’s easy for one to forget that this film is set in a public place. As the conversation gets more and more engrossing it is as if everything around these men disappears. At the start of the film, there is much outside noise making it clear that these men are not alone. Eventually it disappears and Malle has the only other character, a waiter, show up once in a while as if to remind the viewer and the characters that the outside world still exists. My Dinner with Andre is more than just a remarkable conversation; outside of its thematic content: it’s a beautiful film. The set design is stunning and atmospheric. There is a deliberately placed mirror right behind Wallace Shawn; it captures the reactions of Andre Gregory even when it is Wallace’s turn to talk. Louis Malle has created an inspiring world which the draws the viewer in so tightly that it’s just as surprising to the viewer as it is to the characters that the restaurant is closing and that this conversation must eventually end.
Video Clip from My Dinner With Andre