The cinéma vérité shenanery of an upper-class restaurant’s machinations. A “slice of life” depiction of what a luncheon between the immovable object and unstoppable force would look like. A clash of cultural tastes and preferences—love, food, spirituality, politics, nomenclature. The list goes on and on, as the filmmakers probably intended, when it comes to ‘My Dinner with Andre', a cosmopolitan soliloquy whose intention doesn’t seem to be of satiating the question on viewers and onscreen characters’ minds alike: what is the meaning behind life.
Wallace Shawn, a struggling playwright and actor, makes his way through a battered New York ghetto to a dinner date he’s begrudgingly agreed to (we’re told in voiceover) with old friend and colleague, Andre Gregory. The last Wallace heard, Andre had been traveling the world for the past three years, and many thought him mad and unstable because of it. When Wallace finally arrives at the restaurant—and yes, this film chiefly takes place at said restaurant, with very little deviation—he finds it to be impeccably upper class and refined. When Andre arrives, we first notice that their respective appearances could not be more different. Andre, tall, clean-cut, thin, and familiar with the French and European dishes, stands in stark contrast to a pudgy, disheveled, uncultured, and borderline invisible to the hospitable waiting staff, Wallace. This is a nice jumping off point for the rest of the film; not everything Wally has heard about his friend is as it seems, and we find the whole “reserve judgment lest ye be judged” motif really kicks into high gear from the get-go.
The only thing straight-forward about this film is the title; as mentioned earlier, the entire film takes place in the same restaurant, over the course of almost two hours, with little deviation to the other patrons. Watching ‘My Dinner with Andre’, you feel as if you truly are having dinner with these men. And what men! The questions they pose, the quandaries they squabble over, of morals, of love, of existence, are such that half the time you’re too awed that such human thought could be so easily rendered to realize it’s all taking place around something as simple as a dinner table in a restaurant. It is the clarity of thought (that, or the deluded fantasies and mindless rants of bygone-era geniuses) expressed by these men—heavily influenced by actual conversations held between the real-life Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (playing themselves here)—that drives the film, the story: interesting tales by Andre in-house monks and being buried alive, scientific-driven discourse on the relationship between evolution and electric blankets by Wally.
‘My Dinner with Andre’ isn’t the kind of film with a problem to be solved, or a sequence of events that culminate in a hard-lining climax, but simply displays an instance of human interaction—part convoluted, part enlightening—and one that we ourselves have probably encountered at one point or another. The film produces an accusatory voice: we oft run into one another, but without really seeing each other; we talk without really hearing what the other has to say. For example, when Wally first sees Andre at the restaurant and decides he’s just going to ask the latter a bunch of questions without investing himself too much—after all, as has been made clear several times through voiceover, he’s got his own problems to worry about without taking on whatever Andre’s might be. It’s very interesting to watch not only how the characters’ behavior toward one another (and in turn, the world) changes, but how our own views change with them.
The Criterion edition of ‘My Dinner with Andre’ comes with some great interviews with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (separately) 30+ years later. It’s fun hearing how the film’s story came about, but from the other’s POV (which really goes hand in hand with the theme of the film itself). There’s also an episode from the BBC show Arena, where Wallace Shawn interviews the French director of ‘My Dinner with Andre’, Louis Malle, who has since passed away. Also included is a booklet with two very enlightening critical essays, one by Film Comment contributor, Amy Taubin, and the other a split between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Only the Arena episode seemed a little boring, everything else was great.
‘My Dinner with Andre’ is rated PG for some mature material. Because the entire film is just two men sitting down at a restaurant and eating while they talk, you could hardly say there was any questionable material within this film.
This film is available at the following retail stores and online markets:
Amazon -- DVD ; Blu-Ray
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