by Ken B.
One of my favorite movies is Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and one of its most recognizable factors is that all but a few minutes of it take place within a jury room, and it’s driven entirely by its characters’ dialogue. Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is even more compact in that way. It does not have a plot in a traditional sense, and consists of a dinner conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who play characters named Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (both have made it clear that they are not necessarily playing themselves). It is a fascinating study of acting and philosophy, providing a greatly ravishing 111 minutes.
The title My Dinner with Andre tells you what you need to know – it is told from Shawn’s perspective, and most of the talking is done by Gregory, who has quite a lot to say. He speaks of the experiences he’s had as he traveled the world, with magnificent and vivid stories. When Wallace begins to talk at length after about an hour, we see a more interesting dynamic between the two begin. Where Andre speaks of the eccentric lives that he has witnessed and experienced, Wallace argues his thoughts from a more human and domestic perspective. Moments like this are when My Dinner with Andre is at its best, and it’s a shame that more of the movie isn’t the same.
To many, this is a film that will be quite inaccessible. I can definitely understand the negative comments towards My Dinner with Andre, which mainly focus around it being perceived nothing more than a self-indulgent actor/theatre director prattling on with occasional interjections with a less self-indulgent actor/playwright. The fact of the matter is that this is a movie that requires extraordinary levels of concentration and patience that tested me a few times. Still, if you are interested by the idea of capturing a dialogue between two people, and showing that a three-act structure can be abadoned and still achieve success, My Dinner with Andre will prove a richly rewarding experience. You will be able to observe the smaller nuances of the film, such as the waiter (Jean Lenauer), who is often bewildered by the directions that the conversation flies in whenever he is able to overhear it, the low priority placed by the two men on actually eating, despite the conversation itself taking place in a restaurant, or the newly developed levels of introspection the text and delivery of Shawn’s voiceover has over the end credits, as he rides home in a taxi with Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” playing in the background.
As minimalist as the setup is, My Dinner with Andre works best as a film, where there is great importance on close shots of the actors’ faces, and a certain ambience of the setting. Gregory and Shawn unsurprisingly speak the dialogue they wrote with ease. Their personalities and ideologies bounce off each other. You could probably tell a lot about a person if you had them watch the movie and asked them who they identified with more. Would they agree with the philosophical grandeur of Andre Gregory or the softer ideals of Wallace Shawn?
My Dinner with Andre is quite simplistic in its setup but deeply complex in its content. To see it is to want to think about it for hours after the credits have ended, and savor the words said and the points made. It is a movie that I think I’ll be rewatching in the years ahead – it seems like one that becomes more relevant as you get older, and if it meant this much to me now, I can’t help but wonder what it will mean to me in the future.