When adding My Dinner With Andre to his Great Movies collection, Roger Ebert described it as a "movie entirely devoid of clichés." That's not entirely an accurate description, as, in the years since its release, dialogue-centric films have become a perfectly viable both critically and (at times) commercially; filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and, of course, Quentin Tarantino craft their movies around conversations: some humorous, some philosophical.
Yet Louis Malle's 1981 opus remains a purely original creation, one that stands apart from the type of films it inadvertently spawned. Those dialogue-heavy films to come out of the independent movement, they frame their conversations with some sort of conflict. But My Dinner With Andre is just that, a dinner between playwrights Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both playing themselves or at least facets of themselves. For nearly two hours, they dine and chat, regaling each other and no one else, and at last they leave.
To call it deceptively simple is misguided: it is simple. It is that lack of any conflict and action, however, that makes it so brilliant, as it forces you to pay attention to the conversation. And you'll need to be paying attention, too, if you want to make heads or tails of its snaking topics.
Shawn (whom we know by his nickname Wally in the film) opens the dialogue, albeit without Andre. The first few minutes consist of Wally taking the subway to the restaurant to meet his old friend, and he gives us a bit of background on Gregory: Andre made a name for himself in New York as an avant-garde playwright, but his growing disillusionment with the scene -- Andre later mentions fascistic elements of a number of plays and the theatre as a whole - led him to drop out and leave America in the mid '70s. Wally only learned that his friend and collaborator was back in the States when a mutual acquaintance spots Andre crying against a building after watching Bergman's Autumn Sonata, devastated by the line "I could always live in my art, but not in my life."
The two meet and sit, and Shawn pays for his internal monologuing as he must sit back while Andre dominants the conversation out of the gate. For the first hour, Wally listens rapturously as Andre recounts his experiences traveling the world, from his experimental theatre in Poland to spiritual journeys in Tibet and Scotland. He even tells his chum, in the same, disarming way as the rest of his tales, about the time he was buried alive on Halloween for a piece of performance art. Shots of Wally in this hour vacillate between his amusement and horrified disbelief at his friend's remembered antics; only rarely does he attempt to break into the duologue.
At last he must interject, and the remainder of the film turns from Andre's monologue concerning the nature of the theatre and into an actual chat, one that concerns far deeper topics than the purity of art. When Wally really begins to involve himself, Andre shifts gears and the two begin to compare world views and philosophies. Compared to Andre's wild tales, Wally likes simplicity: curling up with his girlfriend and a copy of the Times and living off his plays, that's the good life.
Wally's stories reflect this meek, cynical personality: while reflecting on an awkward on-set moment, comments that people today are "only allowed to express our feelings weirdly and indirectly. If you express them directly, people go crazy." Andre asks him if he did express himself to address the tension, and Wally says no.
As they continue, slowly Wally and Andre come to represent two models for living: Wally likes precision and ardently defends the scientific method near the end. His life is full of doubts, doubts that arise from his unwillingness to risk the unknown to avoid any real pain. If it makes him comfortable, Wally likes it. He even praises the electric blanket for changing the way he sleeps and dreams. Andre, on the other hand, already spent an hour establishing himself as the sort of person who personifies the phrase "carpe diem." He sees no value in the scientific method, and instead looks to the myriad of spiritual guides offered by the world's cultures.
At some point, I found myself, dare I say, rooting for Wally; I obviously do not mean this in any sense of conflict, but in the give and take between the two, I wanted to hear his side more often. Of the two, Wally seems the more grounded, the more approachable of the two, and you naturally gravitate toward him -- ironically, Shawn later railed against his fictionalized self, calling him "the bourgeois human being." Regardless, he looks even more relatable compared to Andre, pretentious madman that he is.
As much light as their conversation sheds on the nature of theatre and art, the personas the two adopt for themselves add even more dimensions. Andre eventually becomes a more palatable character when his manic rants suggest not pretension, but schizophrenia. Wally might sound "normal," but his descriptions of an ideal life reveal his crippling insecurities. He's the starving artist to Andre's renowned star, but it's clear that neither man could ever hold a job in any other profession. That's why attempting to extrapolate their chat as guidelines into large-scale philosophies is a waste of time: for all the potential theories concerning the hidden meanings of the lines, this film is nothing more than a conversation between two pals.
That the conversation seems so organic is an impressive feat given the time Gregory and Shawn spent on the script: they taped hundreds of hours of real lunches and dinners and honed possible topics of discourse. That's certainly why the dialogue bounces through topics that allow both men to offer their own interpretations, and why the camera can be so perfectly placed to document them. Gregory and Shawn told Siskel and Ebert that, if they could do it all over, they'd have switched roles to ward off notions that they played themselves. That would have ruined the whole film, I wager, as the mood and inflection of the lines are far more important than what's said.
Watching this film for the first time, after it's had 18 years to enter the public consciousness, I found its ability to impress dulled slightly by its impact: I've seen it filtered through Linklater's lens (Before Sunrise) as well as Jarmusch's (Coffee and Cigarettes). I found myself wanting to shout at Andre during his opening spiel about his self-indulgent treks across the world, unable to bear his insufferable posturing any longer. Yet the actual back and forth between the two remains the ultimate cinematic exchange, one as dependent on the mood as the lines and natural as it is meticulous. It may have lost its edge, but My Dinner With Andre remains a classic waiting to be devoured by cinephiles and philosophers around the world.