Watching My Dinner with André for the first time at age 15 was my introduction not only to Wallace Shawn (as an intellectual, anyhow…I had seen his homunculus wryly lurking like a Cheshire Cat in the periphery of Woody Allen’s Manhattan) and André Gregory (who remains a bit of a mystery) but to Louis Malle as well, and it’s telling how that first impression stayed with me. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I read Malle behind the camera of that film not as a raw documentarian or an invisible photographer but a serious-minded pilgrim with protean interests — a suspicion later confirmed through viewings of Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe Lucien, and Phantom India. My Dinner with André, however, remains a unique filmic shrine in his oeuvre, a masterful tribute to the Woolfe-ian talk talk talk, eat eat eat of the avant-garde diaspora with an intensely hospitable concentration on its subject matter. The movie is, finally, an exploration of seething alienation amidst both neon lights (urban) and moonlit trances (pastoral), but this painful under-layer is swaddled in a remarkably effective perpendicular storytelling format that emphasizes intimacy and physical proximity (both to the camera and to other human beings). The fetidness wafting from the kitchen in the posh restaurant is that of death, and not just the slaughtering of quail morsels. Closeness is fleeting. The damning schism of individuality is forever.
Revisiting the film for a write-up at Slant Magazine I was astounded at the plethora of subtle contrivances — Wally’s pedestrian voice-over and adenoidal retorts, the “lucid” resolution in which nothing is resolved, and the rather laughable manner in which André is coaxed into relaying his virtual life story at the dinner table. It seems, in retrospect, less like a bona-fide art film and more like a project by mainstream filmmakers with an abstract grasp of what an art film should look and feel like (which is odd, given the track records of those involved). But this tension in the piece’s approach appears so happily ignorant of its awkwardness that we take it as a necessary, organic shortcoming: How else could a two-hour conversation be successfully translated to the screen and still feel like a self-contained fiction? The solution was to make the structure so overbearingly dramatic and so ostentatiously theatrical (you can almost hear the curtain falling after each “act” ends) that it would provide a kind of foothold for the audience’s journey through the nebulous content.
And it mostly works, primarily because Wallace Shawn’s self-named character manages somehow to sound interpretively didactic without actually providing us much of a useful mechanism for understanding the banter in retrospect. More startling than the effect of watching My Dinner with André is that of remembering My Dinner with André in the hours and days and even years that follow. You might be awakened abruptly at 3:00am one sultry pre-dawn morning and half-expect to find yourself resurrected from an early symbolic grave and surrounded by neo-druids. Or you might be wandering the streets of the post-Giuliani New York as a disenchanted tourist and stare through the window of a downtown eatery to lock eyes with a wizened, scowling waiter who seems to view customers as a constant challenge to his stateliness. Or you might be simply sipping coffee one morning with the wife, the paper in your lap (well, CNN online via iPhone works, too), the whimsically-monikered dachshund at your heels, and be overwhelmed with a vague sadness…not precisely an unrequited longing or a damaged heart depression but a melancholy realization that there probably isn’t much more to it all than this, not even if you were to doff your pajamas and streak like a fleshy, incendiary comet towards the conservative coast.
Which brings me to the quiet epiphany I experienced while re-viewing the film properly, after having replayed it from memory in dribbles and snippets for the better part of a decade. My Dinner with André, rather than being a film about aesthetics or logic or a Nietzsche-like dialog with the Apolline dueling the Dionysian, is a calm tragedy about the lugubrious magic of middle-age. Of course, artists are perpetually obsessed with failure, and senescent ones usually make for the most interesting characters (young artists just come off as typily snotty on screen). But in My Dinner with André the frustration and feelings of self-betrayal are more than just a natural byproduct of the artistic existence, they rather seem more potent and haunting than the art piece itself. The art, or attempts at art, are like the subordinate droppings of a distorted self-image. What both characters in the film fail to recognize (but what the audience acknowledges along with the movie’s performers) is that middle-age is about cultivating one’s self as an art piece, whether corybantic or subdued, with a poisonous bushel of disappointment at the core. My Dinner with André makes this concrete for us: yes, Wallace Shawn’s plays are stunning (especially The Fever), but do they compare to his performance here, where he becomes both antithesis and synthesis, and the only thing in the film we have to root for?
Early on in the story, Shawn narrates some gossip from a friend who supposedly saw André slouched over a lamppost in the evening, crying his eyes out over something he saw in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. It’s a painterly image, all the more powerful for evoking specific bits of visual scenery with words alone, but it also feels like the clever inverse of an allusion Woody Allen might make. Allen celebrates Bergman (even if comically) while Wally and André mourn him, but this has less to do with the funerealness of the Swedish director himself than with the fact that Wally and André mourn everything. The doors of their perception have been cleansed, and the infinity they avert their eyes before is the continuum of decay emanating from the center of the slowly actualizing human corpse. But when all is said and done, I’m with Wally and his electric blanket: after all, corpses get cold.