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My Dinner With André (Louis Malle) 1981


    Louis Malle’s My Dinner With André has a well-deserved reputation as the talkiest of all talky movies, and I certainly won’t dispute it. For nearly two hours, the audience is seated at a table with stage director André Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn who play themselves as they meet for dinner for the first time in several years. Some opening narration provided by Shawn prefaces the evening by saying that he was reticent to meet André, until a friend reported that he found him sobbing uncontrollably after seeing Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Apparently, André responded to the line, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” Much of the dialogue between the two of them circles around this concept, as the two wax philosophically about the function of art, the power of personal perception, and the harmful effects of routine on the creative mind, but an equal amount of time is spent as André recounts his wild, globe-trotting adventures, where he traveled from the forests of Poland to the Saharan Dessert in search of himself. Thankfully, by setting this dialogue at a dinner, some natural narrative progression emerges. Each course provides temporal nourishment to the audience and reminds them that the babbling, but entertaining, dialogue won’t continue endlessly.


    Malle’s direction doesn’t do much to spice up the conversation (He mostly uses a two-shot setup that’s so simple that a shot of the waiter’s wagging eyebrows becomes a hilarious invention), but I don’t think that he needs to necessarily. My Dinner depends on the willingness of the audience to listen to the words being spoken and their ability to conjure images to go along with the adventures being described. As a result, the film serendipitously functions similarly to the theater, which is ironic since the film’s characters spend much of their conversation grappling with the notion that theater is difficult to create. The movie's great paradox is that they have created it here despite André’s stated rejection of the form. Of course, the ability of André to still be affected by art (late into the evening, he quotes the Bergman film without any irony) shows that his disillusionment is not absolute. Throughout the bulk of the film, Shawn stays quiet, usually offering only a “Gosh!” or “Wow!” at the end of André’s monologues. Of course, he provides a more grounded counter-balance to the eccentricities that André offers, but I can’t imagine that most viewers would be able to sympathize wholeheartedly with the simple-minded faux-profundities that he spouts at the end of the film. They’re meant to be disarming, coming after the heavy thinking that André’s done, but they’re closer to trite. It doesn’t help matters that the very film is named My Dinner With André, and the opening and closing narration is delivered by Shawn, since that naturally suggests that our sympathies are supposed to be closer to his than André’s. These mechanisms unfairly stack the hand in his favor in this battle of dueling philosophies and do a bit to undermine the power that these two have as perfect foils for each other. Still, most of the film entertains, and it’s difficult to criticize the experiments of a movie that so boldly disregards most cinematic convention. Perhaps we are fortunate that My Dinner With André is such a singular film: in lesser hands it would be torturous.


* * * 


Jeremy Heilman