The post before last made me unearth these notes I once wrote after first seeing the film. Maybe they’ll add a little something here.
Although from a stylistic perspective the movie is rather ugly and washed out looking, with horrible bland cutaways and uncomfortably amateurish reaction shots (curious for a veteran director like Louis Malle), My Dinner with Andre has something really exciting going for it that most movies never even attempt, conversation. It’s like one of those energetic discussions you might have with a friend where the two of you feel like you could solve all the world’s problems by sheer banter alone.
This movie, for once, allows a viewer to see characters go about as deeply as dialogue can take them into a pair of admittedly circumscribed philosophies. It gets to places that grander or more “cinematic” pictures like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Tarkovski’s Andrei Rublev threatened to visit but spent too much time being beautifully composed ever to arrive at. The closest I’ve seen to this elsewhere is in Woody Allen, but he’s too much of a farceur, too much of a comic genius, to land an audience in this one scene for the length of an entire picture. All talking all the time is not usually the movie way. Meaning, generally, is distributed between whatever deft economic shadings the performers can manage to load what little they have to say with, and the style, the settings, lighting, the rhythm of the cutting, fluid or jerky camera movements, and the music score, which is often leaned on to direct viewers to the appropriate emotional undercurrents in a scene. Dinner, therefore, goes right to the heart of the question of cinematic aesthetics, totally violates them, and succeeds quite well for a couple reasons. Firstly, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are just terrific. Shawn’s baldish, sweet elfin plainness was something I never got tired of looking at. Even when the dialogue became deadly serious the wry humorous expressions playing on his round intelligent face helped to lighten the situation, which really didn’t seem as serious to me as the characters seemed to find it. Coming out of their very believably intellectualized mouths I never once felt cheated by all the endless book talk, which in, say, Woody Allen’s films, sometimes has an air of glamorization and gilding, since his performers are so often stars. That’s what’s good about the film.
But there’s something a little confused in the conception of this dinner. Wally is a playwright who’s not having any of his stuffed produced at the moment; his live-in girlfriend has been working to make ends meet, which may be a cause of some tension between them but is never explored since all of this is ticked off in a lazy voiceover as he makes his way toward the restaurant for supper with his Friend Andre. He rounds this audio exposition down by bringing us up to snuff on where things stand between he and his dinner companion, Andre, who had been out of the country for awhile and whom he has been avoiding because of the man’s overbearing pomposity. This set up strikes me as a little surprising since the conversation that ensues between them is probably the kind that only two very good friends could have. Between men who resented one another this sort of thing would likely have ended up as a blood bath, gotten side tracked into an acrimonious form of oneupsmanship. I guess it was set up this way so that viewers would know right from the start the two men were coming at things from differing perspectives on life.
The first twenty minutes or so struck me as a bit dull. Andre pontificates at great length about all the various soul journeys he’s taken, to Poland, to Tibet; goes on about his freakish hallucinations and weltshmerz, caused by the total deadness of modern civilized life. In one peculiar annecdote he tells Wally that he once, to regain a fresh perspective on life, went to a weekend retreat where he was ritualistically stripped and buried alive to get a jump start on his inevitable mortality, with fabulous results (which reminded of the ludicrous Psyche games in John Fowles’s early novel The Magus). After narrating all this, amusingly, he then reports going right back to being a bourgeois husband and father who complains about the commonplace ailments of aging, so much for that expensive weekend.
The way Andre continuously congratulates himself on his own daring and depth is a little nauseating; no wonder Shawn had hoped to avoid this dinner. How can you possibly respect someone who in middle age still goes in and out of art fads, adoring a novel one year, the next dismissing it as fascistic? Needless to say, he’s the sort of character who talks about “modern urban anomie” and “future shock”; he’s a threat to bring up nuclear annihilation at least once in any conversation no matter what the context. His prognosis of the modern condition, aside from being oddly dated in its terminology, is not too darn chipper. According to him all of civilization’s inhabitants are mere dreaming prisoners who require a violent form of shock therapy to wake up. But wake up to what? I wondered. This isn’t the question Shawn asks him though. Instead he takes this vague premise pretty much for granted, that everyone actually is asleep at the wheel of existence, but thinks what they need is to be shown the good plain old quotidian treasures of the day to day. For him, this is where theater comes in. To be honest this was the point from the start, but the two have such a circumloquacious way of talking about things that it only began to harden in my understanding what the stakes of the conversation were at this point.
Shawn seems to think that theater can and should simply wake people up to the world around them again, not unlike, say, a full length film about a couple of friends who have dinner and shoot the shit for two hours. But I kept thinking as they talked, change what? And how? These questions are never asked. Instead the two argue about the possibility of performing the procedure through art at all, something they both apparently take on faith as necessary; it’s only in their aesthetic approaches the two differ.
They go on about the difficulties and horrors of modern existence as if they were two insects who had been squashed on the windshield of history’s speeding car. But what in their personal lives has made them so shattered? For a lot of viewers, I suspect, the two of them will seem to have it pretty good. I kept wanting them to mention one or two specific things they would like to be different in the world, theater, anything, but I just got the feeling these two characters had accepted the amorphously awful state of human existence without bothering to define what the matter was because, secretly, it was sort of self-flattering to look at things in this way. I.E. they know the score while most of us poor dopes are just dupes and suckers. It’s a kind of ennobling cynicism that converts the wonderfully absurd activity of dressing up in costumes and prancing around on a stage into a near religious mission, important in some glowing mystical way that only intuitive enlightened souls can pick up on. I wanted Shawn to finally wave Andre away with some frivolous quip, or say his assessments were “just crap”. Instead he takes it all so earnestly it’s a little embarrassing, at least as far as his lines go, his facial expressions suggest a pleasant ironic imp hiding under the surface that I clung to throughout.
Although the two indulge in a great deal of discussion about what’s wrong with the general state of life/the theater, they keep everything in such general ideal terms they never actually talk about the technicalities of theater. Ideas are great, but they require specificity and mediation. I wanted them to give us a clue or two about how they intended to achieve what they wanted to at the level of actual work, or if they, mostly Andre, even felt it valid to try. Despite real tints of humor in the movie, neither character ever speaks up for comedy or lightness. No wonder they seem so bloodless and destroyed. Their quixotic hopes and dreams are never made even charming, just absurd or weak and pathetic. I suspect that you’re supposed to hover outside them to some degree though. That’s probably why the movie has been set in a fancy restaurant where waiters occasionally break into the chat, which drives home to the viewer how cushy and protected these shattered souls actually are. The characters seemed to have been completely neutered by their neuroses, like characters from an Antonioni movie, only Dinner uses naturalistic performances and tons of talk instead of chic stilted compositions. Yet even twenty or so years after its release the concept of this movie is still pretty novel, and rather pleasurable. I’ll refrain from making a positive pun out of the movie title.