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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Dinner with Andre 30 Years On: The Two-Hour Conversation Maintains Its Brilliance

Posted By on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 8:30 AM

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Two old friends meet in an upscale New York restaurant. It's been a few years since they last saw each other. Wally is a short, bald, middle-class playwright. Andre is a distinguished, independently wealthy theater director. They have worked together in the past, but Andre has dropped out of the New York theater scene for a while. Wally tells us in voice-over narration that he's eager to hear about where Andre has been -- and whether the rumors of a crack-up are true. For the next two hours, we eavesdrop on their conversation.

And that's it. That's the premise of a motion picture. With the barest setup or backstory, My Dinner with Andre is literally a two-hour conversation. But it's also magic -- it's never dull. Wally (Wallace Shawn) and Andre (Andre Gregory) are not just talking heads -- they are full characters, and this single conversation tells us more about each one than we'd be likely to learn in a conventional film. That is probably why nothing like My Dinner with Andre has come along in the 30 years since its release. Working from Shawn and Gregory's script, Louis Malle directs in an unadorned style that allows the two actors to carry the show, with slight but important touches that add something extra.

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Wally and Andre's conversation is self-revealing, philosophical, searching, and sometimes even thrilling. Andre holds forth for almost the entire first half of the film with tales of his self-imposed exile from the New York theater. He has traveled to Poland and Tibet, experience many different spiritual awakenings. He speaks rapturously of giving up control of his life in Polish forests, where he participated in esoteric theatrical exercises. He also recounts a Halloween gathering on Long Island during which each guest was subjected to an elaborate prank in which they were "forced" to act out their deaths.

Like us, Wally listens intently if somewhat dubiously. Although the film argues both actors' point of view, the viewer primarily sees things from Wally's perspective, because it's Wally's narration that opens the film. We attend the dinner at his side to begin with. As Andre talks on (and on and on), Wally continues to press him for information and stories -- because the stories are interesting and because they are oddly disturbing. After all, Andre's tales are those of a privileged white man who has the extraordinary luxury of moving freely about the world, visiting and then retreating from whatever places he chooses. And yet he speaks of his experiences as if they are essential, as if to fail to partake in such arcane activities would render him an incomplete human being.

Wally on his way to meet Andre at the restaurant
  • Wally on his way to meet Andre at the restaurant

When Wally finally rejoins, late in the film, our tolerance of Andre is near a breaking point. He is a knowledgeable, enticing character, but he lacks humility and perspective regarding his place in the world -- his relative smallness compared with the world he claims to understand so fully. Wally's response is to assert his own somewhat quotidian, New York-bound reality as equally significant to Andre's extravagant adventures, despite his not having traveled to the far corners of the Earth, nor having been buried alive or climbed to the top of Mount Everest.

This is an immensely satisfying moment because we have been waiting for Wally's response to Andre's hot air, hoping it might prick a fatal hole in his inflated self-image, and I won't spoil it by describing it any further except to say that it goes on for some time.

Beyond Andre and Wally, there is one other "participant" in the dinner: the duo's waiter, a dignified elderly gentleman of indeterminate European origin. Tuxedo-clad, with his thick white hair swept dramatically across his head, the waiter attends to his diners discreetly. In fact, he hardly says a word (when he does, we hear a gravelly, thickly accented voice).

Wally (left) and Andre with their waiter reflected in the mirror behind them
  • Wally (left) and Andre with their waiter reflected in the mirror behind them

At several points during the conversation, Andre glibly refers to the Holocaust. At one point, he says that the Long Island Halloween death ritual gave him an understanding of what it felt like in the Nazi death camps; at another, he says that he feels like Albert Speer; still later, Andre compares contemporary New York itself to a death camp.

All the while, the waiter throws glances in their direction repeatedly, and we sense his quiet rage. We infer that he has seen awful things in his life -- quite possibly the Holocaust itself -- and that although he might now feel grateful to be serving fine food and wine to a pair of privileged New York theater types, their complete ignorance of the horrifying potential of life's true hardships frustratingly neuters his own past experiences.

So, as engaging as Wally and Andre's conversation is, and as layered and stimulating as it is, the waiter is there to remind us that there is something about their very ability to enjoy such a leisurely philosophical talk that distances them -- and their overarching focus on how we choose to approach living a full life -- from the vast numbers of human beings who are simply unable to have such a conversation to begin with, whether it be due to hunger, disease, physical danger, or other basic needs that go unfulfilled.

At first, we are participants in the dinner to the extent that we are likely to empathize more with either Wally or Andre, and will hope for the chosen perspective to prevail. But the waiter's presence -- and his judging glare -- makes our participation more complex. The waiter forces us out of the position of simply choosing a side, and we step back to appraise the conversation as a whole from yet another angle. My Dinner with Andre isn't just a classed-up philosophical debate on film; the film questions the very basis of the debate itself, encouraging us to look inside ourselves and start our own search for meaning.

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Casey Burchby

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