“For the performer, the movie offers an even more metaphysical quandary: how do you play yourself? ‘The thing that drove me nuts,’ Andre explained, ‘is that I’m playing a character based on me. So then the question is, who am I? And which Andre?'”
It is perhaps the simplest, and at the same time the most daring idea for a movie ever. Two men meet for dinner in an elegant New York restaurant. One, the narrator, is Wally Shawn (short, balding, thirty-eight years old), a struggling playwright and sometime actor who lives with girlfriend Debbie. The other is Andre Gregory (tall, thin, married, about ten years older than Shawn), an experimental theater director who, at the very height of his career, dropped out to travel the world. They sit, they order the terrine de poisson, and then, for the next ninety minutes, they talk . . . and talk, and talk, and talk. And all the while, the movie stays with them in the restaurant, like a play never showing anything more than the two men seated at the table. What, you ask, do they talk about? Well, here’s a rough, though by no means complete, list, in no particular order:
1, Martin Heidegger
2. Walt Whitman
3. The Little Prince
5. Eastern religion
6. Experimental theater groups in the Polish forest
7. The Sahara Desert
8. Andre’s travels (See nos. 6 and 7)
9. The Tibetan swastika
10. The decline of contemporary society
11. Monks who stand on their fingertips and wear Gucci shoes (Note: Not to be confused with No. 10)
12. Electric blankets (Note: Reverse previous note)
13. Agricultural communities where people talk to insects
14. Fortune cookies
15. Hannah Arendt
16. Martin Buber
21. A half-bull, half-man creature with violets growing out of its eyelids and poppies growing out of its toenails
Before going any further, the other thing I should mention is that this movie was written by Wally Shawn (thirty-eight, short, balding, a struggling playwright and sometimes actor) and Andre Gregory (forty-seven, tall, thin, a formerly successful theater director who dropped out to travel the world) and stars, you guessed it, Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory. Still with me?
The first time I heard the concept for this movie, my immediate reaction was, “Huh?” Which I later learned is the most common initial response. It’s only when you see the movie that you begin to realize how marvelous it is. For the first hour or so, Andre does most of the talking. He talks about his family, the theater, colleagues they both know. Mostly, though, he describes his adventures. His stories range from the strange (eating sand in Africa) to the really strange (looking in the rearview mirror and seeing little birds flying out of his mouth). Yet once you hear him speak, you’ll find you’ve never heard anyone so fascinating in your life. Here he is describing a theater workshop he participated in on Long Island:
ANDRE: Three of the people kept disappearing in the middle of the night each night, and we knew they were preparing something big, but we didn’t know what. And midnight on Halloween, under a dark moon, above these cliffs, we were all told to gather at the topmost cliff and that we would be taken somewhere. And we did. And it was cold . . . And they had found what was a kind of potting shed — a kind of shed on the grounds, a little tiny room that had once had tools in it — and they took me down these stairs, and the room was filled with very harsh white light. And they told me to undress and give them all my valuables. Then they put me on a table and sponged me down. Now I started just flashing on death camps and secret police . . . And then one by one — again, one at a time — we were led out. The blindfold was put on, and I felt myself being lowered onto something like a stretcher. And the stretcher was carried a long way, very slowly, through the woods, and then I felt myself being lowered into the ground. They had in fact dug six graves, eight feet deep. And then I felt pieces of wood being put on me — I mean, I cannot tell you, Wally, what I was going through — and I was lowered into the grave on a stretcher, and then this wood was put on me, my valuables were put on me, in my hands, and they had stretched a sheet or canvas about this much above my head, and then they shoveled dirt onto the grave so that I really had the feeling of being buried alive.
The very thought of it makes you shudder. The macabre landscape, the bizarre rituals, the claustrophobia of the final vivisepulture all scrape at our most basic terrors, leaving the viewer with a taunting query, namely: “Could I go through this?” The fact that this anecdote ends with Andre and the others drinking hot wine and dancing around a campfire is simply part of its charm. He leaps from subject to subject — The Little Prince to the Tibetan swastika, the Public Theater to the death of his mother — with the same deedness with which David Lean once cut from a matchstick in Cairo to the Arabian horizon thousands of miles away, which just goes to show the power of the spoken word. The movie, despite its deceptively simple setting, is as expansive as any epic, sweeping from the shores of Montauk to the deserts of Africa, from the Polish forest to the Scottish highlands, from Mount Everest to Wally’s tiny apartment where he drinks his coffee in the morning. As Andre (real Andre, not movie Andre; it gets confusing sometimes) explained years later, “The interesting thing is that this person, that person and that person see their own Tibet, their own Polish forest, so that, in fact, in picturing that, in the fact that the movie isn’t doing everything for you, it’s activating the imagination of the audience. So that, in fact, if you like the movie, it’s waking you up, which is one of the intentions of the movie.”1 Note the words “waking you up” at the end of that statement. If they seem to ring with a note of the sixties avant-garde, remember that Andre was a friend and follower of Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish theater director whose work sought to remove the separation between audience and performer. (Aficionados of the film will remember Grotowski from Andre’s “beehive” story in the Polish forest, wherein the performers are the audience, just as unaware as anyone else of what they will do from one moment to the next.) “We were living in a time by the eighties,” Andre explained, “when nobody was really talking anymore in depth. It was all on the surface, it was all very superficial. And I think if I had one goal with this movie it was to hopefully activate people to talk again.”2
Once, in college, a teacher asked my class if anyone could name a film that lacked a three-act structure. Naively, I suggested My Dinner with Andre, only to have my suggestion, so smugly chosen, systematically dismantled by the professor. Yet my foolishness disclosed a worthwhile insight: perhaps the film’s greatest piece of artfulness is its ability to cloak that very artfulness in a Columbo-like guise of simplicity. A basic three-act breakdown of the film could, for example, read like this:
ACT 1 (The Setup): Where Wally and Andre meet, their meeting is explained, and Andre begins to recount his stories.
ACT 2 (The Confrontation): Where Wally rejects Andre’s worldview and Andre, in turn, defends it.
ACT 3 (The Resolution): Where Wally and Andre each accept the other’s point of view without actually choosing to adopt it, and where Wally begins, for the first time, to talk, and Andre, for the first time, to listen.
Conversely, in terms of a mystery story, it could read:
ACT 1 (The Problem): Where Wally must face a dinner with a strange and possibly unhinged man.
ACT 2 (The Clues): Where Andre, contrary to expectations, is shown to be an inspiring man-of-action, and Wally, exactly according to expectations, is shown to be a timid intellectual.
ACT 3 (The Twist): Where Andre reveals himself to be more close-minded and inhibited than we first thought, and Wally reveals himself to be more wise and brave.
These may sound like pointless exercises, but once you start it’s hard to stop. One of the great pleasures of the film is the wealth of interpretations it elicits. It is said that great works of art change for us as we change over time. Roger Ebert, for instance, once stated that, at eighteen, he worshipped Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita (1960); at thirty, he identified with him; at forty he scorned him; and at fifty, he loved and pitied him.3 This is equally true of My Dinner with Andre. Yet in the case of the latter film, the change can take place simply from one day to the next. I have met more than one viewer who, having watched the movie two or even three days in a row, told me they saw the characters in a new light with each separate viewing. Depending on your perspective, not to mention what part of the film you’re in, Andre can appear, by turns, lost, enlightened, crazy, rational, calculating, naïve, and admirably candid, while Wally can seem dour, frenzied, bitter, optimistic, pragmatic, and determinedly bourgeois. Yet there is nothing particularly incongruous in this. Who doesn’t present different sides of themselves to the world? None of us are monochromatic in nature, as any good actor or screenwriter knows; we are all varying shades, tints, and hues.
For the performer, though, the movie offers an even more metaphysical quandary: how do you play yourself? “The thing that drove me nuts,” Andre explained, “is that I’m playing a character based on me. So then the question is, who am I? And which Andre?” He solved the problem by imagining the character as not one part but many parts, playing each like separate instruments in a symphony:
I actually use four different voices in the movie. One is Andre the Peter Brook theater guru. The other voice is the Andre off-the-wall, spacey, dilettante, rich kid. The third is Andre the spiritual used-car salesman. And the fourth is the Andre when he’s really being sincere, which is only much later in the movie. Once I had the four voices my body started doing different things when the different voices [were employed]. So it’s an absolute character based on Andre Gregory but it’s not really Andre Gregory.4
If that sounds abstruse, bear in mind that Wally’s role is equally challenging, if not more so, the difference being that, while Andre acts, Wally reacts, which, as any actor knows, is the more difficult of the two. Just look at the puzzlement in Wally’s eyes as Andre throws an imaginary teddy bear in the air. For a moment, he wears on his face the expression of a man who doesn’t know whether to hand over his wallet or flee screaming into the night. Then, just as quickly, his look softens — the man realizing he is, in fact, not being robbed — and becomes, again, one of intense interest. The whole thing takes no more than five seconds. This, for those who haven’t seen its likes before, is acting at its finest.
Shawn’s true métier, though, is comedy. The high voice, the shiny pate, the puckish features, the Bacchanalian grin that nearly swallows his entire chin: one can instantly see why Rob Reiner cast him as Vizzini in The Princess Bride (1987), a role as tailored to his dimensions as Bond was to Sean Connery. (Likewise, his disclosure to Andre that he once played Behemoth in a stage adaptation of The Master and Margarita reveals one of the unheralded strokes of genius in theatrical casting.) His near silence for the first two-thirds of the movie, in fact, conceals a manic energy waiting to escape. When he bursts, he explodes like a firecracker, frantically trying to explain to his friend why he can’t share his beliefs in surrealism, transcendentalism, and warnings that come from fortune cookies. “I mean [my] trip is going to be successful or unsuccessful based on the state of the airplane and the state of the pilot and the cookie is in no position to know about that,” he says, hitting the word with a sharp sting of emphasis. What’s easy to miss the first time through is how incredibly funny much of this is. It takes a second or third viewing to start catching the comic gems scattered throughout the thicket of conversation, as when Andre lists his requirements for teaching Grotowski’s theater workshop in Poland: forty Jewish women who speak neither English nor French and play either the trumpet or the harp, who have been in the theater for a long time and want to leave it but don’t know why, or young women who love the theater but have never seen a theater they could love; and a forest. Easy, right?
ANDRE: And he said, “Well, you know, forty Jewish women are a little hard to find,” but he said, “I do have forty women. They all fit pretty much the same definition.” And he said, “I also have some very interesting men, but you don’t have to work with them. These are people who have in common the fact that they’re questioning the theater. They don’t all play the trumpet or the harp, but they all play a musical instrument. And none of them speak English.” And he’d found me a forest, Wally, and the only inhabitants of the forest were some wild boar and a hermit. So that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.5
What makes this story amusing, as with many of Andre’s anecdotes, is the surreal nature of it. His stories have a strange logic, like that of half-remembered dreams, that is at once absurd and completely believable. Yet, according to Andre, the tales are all true. The genesis of the film sprouted from his actual adventures and the stories he told his friend after his return to the U.S. Sniffing a possible screenplay, Wally suggested an unusual idea: they would borrow a friend’s office at NYU. Andre would regale him with the stories of his travels, and Wally would tape-record their conversations, which he would then type into a transcript and, finally, condense into a single, movie-length conversation. Andre agreed. The process, from the first interview to the finished script, took over a year. The written transcript of their conversations alone ran to over fifteen hundred single-spaced pages.6 The friends pared it down by separating out eighty different themes. Only then did Wally begin writing the screenplay, and it was here, as Andre later explained, that the dreamlike world of the movie began to take shape:
In telling the story, I would have said, “Well, we lived in this tiny little castle. We’d go out and do exercises during the day. We’d run around the forest. We’d eat at this great stone slab that served as a table.” Wally takes that and he rewrites it into: “We lived in a tiny little castle and ate around this great stone slab that served as a table.” So what the audience sees is a tiny castle and a huge table. So you’re in a hallucinogenic world that sounds completely real. And only Wally could have done that.7
Once the script was finished, though, the friends faced an even thornier question: who wants to make a film about two middle-aged men talking for three hours, with no shoot-outs, no car chases, and no women? The answer, as it turned out, was the best, and perhaps only, man for the job: Louis Malle. Born to a wealthy family in Thumeries, France in 1932, Malle switched from political science to filmmaking in college, eventually working under both Jacques Cousteau and Robert Bresson before getting the chance to direct his own first production, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud (1958). His next film, The Lovers (1958), proved a succes de scandale due to its sexual content — the story of a married woman who keeps one lover and runs off with another she’s only just met, eventually leading to the U.S. Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which Justice Potter Stewart, attempting to define obscenity, famously declared, “I know it when I see it.”8 The picture launched the careers of both Malle and Jeanne Moreau, throwing them into the incipient world of the nouvelle vague, a movement that Malle has, retrospectively at least, never much been associated with, though he shared their love of natural light, location shooting, and handheld camerawork. While Truffaut and Godard bask in the august light of film memory, Malle remains, at least for most viewers, hidden in the shadows. To a large degree, this neglect is the direct result of the very strengths that made him great: his willingness to take risks and his obsession with never repeating himself. As Pauline Kael keenly noted:
A new Chabrol or a Losey is as easily recognizable as a Margritte, but even film enthusiasts have only a vague idea of Malle’s work. Had Malle gone on making variations of almost any one of his films, it is practically certain he would have been acclaimed long ago, but a director who is impatient and dissatisfied and never tackles the same problem twice gives reviewers trouble and is likely to be dismissed as a dilettante.9
Action was not his forte, as anyone who’s seen Viva Maria! (1965) knows firsthand. Malle could not (and, probably, would not) have directed Saving Private Ryan (1998) any more than he could have directed Raging Bull (1980) or Full Metal Jacket (1987). Then again, I seriously doubt Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or Stanley Kubrick could have fashioned Murmur of the Heart (1971), Pretty Baby (1978), or Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) with such artistry; Malle has a subtlety and grace that even the other great masters lack, a palpable humanity that somehow never turns maudlin or manipulative. Human emotions are the foundation of his craft, moral ambiguity his bricks and mortar. Murmur of the Heart, for instance, is the story of a love affair between a teenage boy and his mother. The two circle and dance round one another for the better part of two hours before having sex in a hotel room on Bastille Day, 1954. The whole concept sounds incredibly dirty until you actually see it. The coupling, when it occurs, seems neither perverse nor amoral but, within the context of the film, sweet and perfectly natural. Pretty Baby is no less daring. Set in the Storyville district of New Orleans in 1918, the film follows Violet (Brook Shields), a twelve-year-old girl growing up in a lavish brothel. Raised in a world she can barely understand and deflowered at an age when most girls are still playing with their dolls, she becomes a hybrid of innocence and experience that is both charming and sad: the child’s naive wonderment mixed with a mouth that would make Mae West blush. Abandoned by her mother (Susan Sarandon), a prostitute too self-absorbed to even acknowledge the girl as her daughter, Violet moves in with Bellocq (Keith Carradine), a shy photographer of whores who has gradually fallen in love with her. When the mother returns, newly married and reformed, our moral compass is thrown off course. Clearly, Bellocq is incapable of being both father and lover to Violet, but on the other hand, the mother’s track record isn’t any better. Not to mention, the poor man loves the girl, and, by the end of the picture, so do we, so captivating is her manner. Again, if this story sounds disgusting and sordid, it’s not. The compositions, by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, are sumptuous, lush, spilling over with life; the period so evocative you can almost smell the French perfume. If Nabokov wrote in images, this is the movie he would have made.
One reason Malle may have been drawn to the script of My Dinner with Andre was Andre himself. In the late 1960s, Malle had gone through his own artistic and spiritual crisis, finding solace in true Gregorian fashion: a harrowing journey through India, eventually resulting in his two documentaries on the country, Calcutta (1969) and The Phantom of India (1969). Yet, amazingly, neither Wally nor Andre thought of him when pitching their screenplay; the pair had kicked around some of the most eminent names in cinema (Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa)10 before trying to sell Mike Nichols on the idea, only to be turned down. It was at this point that they got a call from a man with a French accent pleading with them to let him direct their film. He said, “If you don’t think I’m the right director, I’ll produce it. If you don’t think I’m the right producer or the right director, the only thing I beg you is, when you do the movie there should not be anything visual in it. Keep to the concept of the two of you talking.”11 Instantly, they knew they’d found their man.
Malle began with extensive rehearsals with his two leads, videotaping their performances so they could see how to smooth out their stage habits, picked up from years in the theater. He encouraged them to approach the characters not as versions of themselves but the way they might approach any other new part, even going so far as to have them exchange roles.12 “He was teaching me to be a film actor,” Andre said. “I’d trained to be a theater actor, and so, of course, my impulse was always to do more.”13 Instead, Malle told Andre to speak faster. This accounts for Andre’s sometimes febrile manner in the movie — he could very well be a decedent of Walter Huston in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), just itching for the next gold strike — but it also kept him from over-thinking the part, freeing him to exist in the moment, just as he had in Grotowski’s theater group in the forest. As Malle explained to him, “You have this impulse to want to ‘act.’ You don’t know how much the camera sees when it comes into your eyes.”14
In a film whose biggest plot twists turned on the tiniest looks and intonations, matters that would have otherwise seemed trivial loomed large. One was how to have the actors talk and eat at the same time. The dilemma proved so frustrating that Malle considered asking Wally and Andre to rewrite the restaurant setting altogether. He eventually solved the problem, though, by having Wally do all the eating for the first hour of the film, while Andre talked, a not entirely pleasant experience for Wally, who was forced to consume scores of game hens over the course of the production. Another question for Malle was how to photograph the actors. As any good cinematographer knows, focal length and camera angle can affect the mood of a scene just as much as the performers themselves. Not wishing to distract from the performances, Malle forsook the use of dolly tracks and elaborate camera moves, opting to let simple adjustments in camera angle speak for themselves: low angles for the times when Andre was being pompous (thus accentuating his lanky form) and high angles for his moments of sincerity.15 All decisions, however, had to be made at a rapid-fire pace. The production was given a mere three weeks for filming and a budget of only $400,000. (To save money on union fees, the restaurant scenes were shot in a boarded-up hotel in Richmond, Virginia rather than in New York.) The biggest technical challenge for Malle, however, was how to separate Wally and Andre from the rest of the restaurant without isolating them so much that the audience got bored. It is, essentially, the same question that many early sound filmmakers were grappling with. How do you adapt a stage play without making it look stagy? He resolved this dilemma with an ingenious, if not equally vexing device: the array of mirrored squares covering the wall beside the table. It was an exasperating process for the crew; each mirror, individually adjustable, had to be moved every time the camera changed positions. Consequently, however, we are able to see not only Wally and Andre but an assortment of other diners off-camera, their own conversations perhaps no less interesting than our heroes’ own. Presto: the stage play at once made cinematic.
If you want to gauge the film’s true success, the best method is not a summing up of box office receipts or a tallying of DVD grosses but rather an application of general relativity. Considering the fact that Wally and Andre initially planned to screen the picture for only their closest friends and family members, its continuing impact on the world of film has been astounding. It launched the movie careers of both its leads, familiarizing them to audiences who had neither read nor heard a word of their plays; turned Jean Lenauer, the seventy-seven-year-old waiter, into a minor celebrity, touring college campuses to talk about his part in the film; inspired numerous spoofs and parodies, including an entire episode of Frasier; and, perhaps most strangely of all, even a hip-hop album by Idiom Creak, The After Dinner Collection, sampling lines from the movie. Not that any of this holds a candle to the success of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), movies whose merchandise rights alone could have bought scores of dinners with Andre. Yet those of us who love the film love it inordinately, like overly solicitous parents, wary lest the schoolyard bullies harm our fragile prodigy. Just check out the movie on YouTube, scroll down to the viewer comments, and you’ll find some distinctly un-YouTubian wordage. Scanning randomly, for instance, I came across this response from @dubfive:
Wally’s reconciliation with Andre is mirrored with Wally’s reconciliation with New York. He is literally re-defining his “home” by assigning meaning to the meaningless.
The last emotion we feel is Wally’s eagerness to tell Debbie about his dinner with Andre. It’s the perfect emotion to end this film on. It subconsciously urges the audience to share the film with a loved one in order to fulfill our unconscious need to feel “connected” to them.
Thank you, @dubfive. I couldn’t have put that better myself. What the writer is talking about here is the final scene in the film, a scene of almost transcendent beauty, as Wally rides home alone through the city streets. Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No.1” plays over Wally’s internal reveries, and though his thoughts are of the banal type to which we are all prone, there is something ineffably lovely in this. He muses about growing up in New York and walking these same streets as a boy, having an ice cream soda after school, buying a suit with his father. In these simple reflections you feel him grasping for some profundity he can’t quite reach, some greater meaning, and yet, as anyone who has seen the movie knows all too well, you can’t help but feel the same way yourself. His experience does feel profound, though who’s to say exactly why? This is perhaps the film’s greatest gift and its greatest joy. It asks the questions but leaves the answers up to us, to decide individually, or with a friend, over dinner.
Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. New York: Random House, 2003.
Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).
Malle, Louis. Malle on Malle. Ed. Philip French. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Southern, Nathan C. and Jacques Weissgerber. The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.