My Dinner With Andre (1981)
Directed by Louis Malle
This isn’t my regular movie blog article where I talk about the films I see over and over again. A Matter of Life And Death is fairly new to me (although I spent many years tracking it down) and I’ve only seen it once. My Dinner With Andre, however, reverts to type: I’ve seen it at least ten times. I’ve read the screenplay three times and would absolutely like to sink my teeth into the thousand pages or so uncut transcript that Wallace Shawn started with before he whittled it down to the Dinner script. I have a whole manila file of Dinner-related clippings at home. I’ll be seeing this movie again and again for the rest of my life. I gladly own my obsession. Like seemingly everything Andre Gregory is prominently associated with, Dinner divided the critics when it was released. On the rapturous/damning divide, I fit into the former when I first saw it, two years after it came out. Stunned, mesmerized, exultant—it’s safe to say that this movie made an impression on me almost no movie has ever made. Virtually the entire movie is two men talking, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who play, respectively, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. And yet don’t play them. I took it for a sort-of documentary on that initial, exultant viewing. But it’s not as simple as that. You see, Shawn and Gregory play themselves. They play characters that share their names and resemble their real-life selves (Somewhat? Fairly? Largely?) but aren’t quite them. This creates dramatic distance, tension, blurring, guessing-games. All this might seem to confuse the dramatic impact but it actually heighten it. The entire movie works, and works very well indeed.
So the two men talk. For about 107 minutes. During pre-production, The Powers That Be insisted that there be flashbacks, no audience will stand for this, it’ll get monotonous, flashbacks break up the intensity, what—do you wanna wreck us? But Andre and Wally stuck to their guns, got Malle on board and it succeeds without flashbacks. The resulting intensity works for the movie, not against it. Because the two leads are so skilled at getting you to imagine the stories in your mind, the movie is far richer than it would be had flashbacks been inserted. It’s the oldest drama of all-storytelling. The conversation is so stimulating, so white-hot, you don’t notice the passing of time, and the movie seems to almost zip by. Andre’s para-theatrical and para-religious quests in the Sahara, the Polish forest, Findhorn, and Long Island are contrasted to Wally’s rooted life paying bills, ticking off his errands as he completes them, trying not to obsess about money. It’s a film about the benefits of risking the Don Quixote life as compared to admitting the Sancho Panza demands of practicality. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about the need to wake up and to find a more genuine way of living. Shocking at times, very funny at others, it reveals new facets, new angles, and new insights just when you think it can’t do that anymore, say on the ninth viewing. A conversation of this length has never, to my knowledge, been done in the movies before or since Dinner, and it probably shouldn’t be. I doubt anybody else could avoid the pitfalls Andre and Wally dodged.