Monday, January 23, 2006

Movie Review: My Dinner with Andre

U.S. Release Date: 10/11/81
Running Time: 1:50
Rated: PG
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Jean Lenauer, Roy Butler

Director: Louis Malle
Producers: George George, Beverly Karp, Michael White
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Studio: New Yorker Films

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Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is the grandfather of all conversation films. However, while this 1981 low-budget production successfully spawned several great conversation pieces (including Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Mindwalk), in this case, it is the offspring that outshine the inspiration. Even though My Dinner with Andre is original and unconventional in its approach, it is also – at times – unappetizing in nature. To call My Dinner with Andre a masterpiece (like so many other critics) would confirm the very principle (of falling victim to influence and routine) that the picture attempts to refute.

Throughout its 110 minute running-time, My Dinner with Andre solely depicts two men conversing over potato soup, French pâté, roasted quail, salad, and espresso respectively. These two men are Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who play themselves in the film. Wallace is a struggling playwright/actor who is initially pessimistic of how he and Andre are going to keep each other’s interest during the course of an entire meal. Andre is an old friend of Wallace’s and a successful New York theater director, who has just returned from an emotional, soul-searching journey abroad.

After Wallace expresses, in his opening voiceover, that he “doesn’t feel like playing doctor to Andre” and has “problems of his own,” he decides to “play detective” and continue to ask questions of Andre’s voyage. However, once Andre begins to open up and provide Wallace with intriguingly vivid answers, Wallace really begins to listen. From there, the conversation ensues, and Wallace becomes decreasingly reticent.

While 60% of Wallace and Andre’s conversation drips with profundity, the other 40% (which mainly spews from the lips of Andre) seems more like deliberately inflammatory psycho-babble. This is why practical audiences have a better chance of relating to Wallace than Andre the nut-job. When Andre lectures on being in church as “a huge creature appeared with violets coming out of its eyelids and poppies growing out of its toenails,” Andre and the audience are a complete disconnect. Further, his strange chats on leading cult-like “beehive” activities, being buried alive on All Soul’s Eve, and spending time with a Japanese monk – who defies the laws of physics – in the Saharan Desert expunge any relation between the viewer and the lead. Yes, the majority of Andre’s comments on human beings living “in ludicrous ignorance of each other,” “in a trance – like zombies,” and “in a psychotic dream world,” are thought-provoking, but other films have gotten the same points across indirectly and with more success.

Wallace’s frenetic responses, concerning the neighboring cigar shop and the reasoning behind keeping his electric blanket among other things, keep the film rolling. His summation of Andre’s monologue in saying, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” is indeed the turning-point of the picture. Above-all, My Dinner with Andre effectively signifies the ability for a surrealist and a realist to agree to disagree, yet still be moved by one another’s near-incessant rants.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, stimulating discourse is healthy for the soul; it’s just that, even though it is important to open up, avoid living mechanically, and really commit to being, sometimes the more-personal late-night conversations – that we have with our own friends, family members, or even strangers – strike a deeper chord within our psyches. Even if My Dinner with Andre doesn’t exactly nourish your cinematic stomach with sustenance in every way, shape, and form, the film does provide your mind with an ample supply of nutrients. And that is perhaps the film’s most redeeming quality. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006