There are some films I return to year after year, always finding something new & illuminating in them. "My Dinner With Andre" is at the top of that list, having become not just a cherished favorite, but a special touchstone for me, a reminder of what civilized life is supposed to be -- and it's all the more vital in these crass, anti-intellectual times!
Yet this isn't the congratulatory self-indulgence & snobbery that some critics make of it. This is simply intelligent, witty, sometimes searching & troubled conversation about the meaning of one's life, the roles & scripts that society writes for us, the effort to wake up from the all-encompassing & comforting illusions we so eagerly embrace without hesitation. Sooner or later we all start wondering about the choices we've made & lives we're living ... and whether that qualifies as living at all. Andre & Wally are discussing these very questions, and we're invited to listen.
Again, some find this boring. Not me! First of all, Andre is a superb raconteur, utterly urbane & at ease in the most bizarre of circumstances, and I find his stories compelling & vivid. Just as enjoyable is Wally's reaction to him, as a wealth of emotion plays over his face: he's curious, dubious, angry, puzzled, fascinated, repelled. And then Wally joins in the conversation, practically sputtering in his need to refute & challenge Andre.
From there the film really grabs the viewer. Every time I see it, I want to join in the conversation ... and every time, I've got something different to say. That's the delight of this film. It changes & goes in different directions with each viewing, because the viewer has changed & grown in that interval as well. And is there anything as haunting as both Andre's & Wally's last words?
Criterion has done a wonderful job, as might be expected. The follow-up interviews with Andre & Wally, done more than a quarter of a century after the film, are especially revealing. Andre is older, but the same amused, literate spirit is still there. And Wally has indeed woken up to a new world & life of political & cultural engagement. I sometimes wonder if they might do a second film, reflecting on those decades, or whether that would be a fatal mistake ...
But you don't have to wait for a second film for more conversation. "My Dinner With Andre" should make you want to talk with your own friends, talk in depth about the questions that matter most to you. Beyond all the shiny gadgets & status symbols & endless pursuit of what you're told to want, what IS your life? In the end, all we really have is ourselves. Why not make the most of that?
Most highly recommended!
Note: the published screenplay is equally recommended, as it contains more material -- sometimes a line or two, sometimes an entire page or two -- that was cut from the final version. More food for thought!
This is a great movie for selected audiences who happen to be in the right mood for it. I will warn you that the rest of the review contains spoilers, but that shouldn't prevent you from enjoying the film since it really has no plot twists or turns.
99% of the movie takes place at a table in the New York restaurant where Wallace Shawn, a playwright, and Andre Gregory, a theatre manager, are having dinner and a near two hour conversation after a long time apart. The very beginning shows Wallace getting on the subway and coming to the restaurant and reveals that he has not been so successful in his recent pursuits, that recently he has found himself only caring about money due to this lack of success, and that this is a somewhat reluctant reunion he is attending.
The first part is Andre recounting his professional burn-out and his subsequent travels to Poland, the Sahara, England, and Tibet to look for meaning in his life. The next part is Wallace responding to all of this, and the final part consists of Andre and Wallace basically agreeing to disagree, all while dining at a fine restaurant.
Although Andre's tale is fascinating, it is very hard to relate to him. It was easier to relate to Wallace as he enters the restaurant somewhat downtrodden, listens patiently to Andre's adventures, and then seems to find his spark when he responds to Andre's tale by saying that it seemed to him that all of Andre's exploits were an effort to strip away the purpose from his life in an attempt to experience life as "pure being". Shawn clearly states that he sees no value in just existing, as he believes we are all defined by our purposes and pursuits. Even if he was home, with nothing to do, he says, he would pick up a book. The two continue to talk, but neither is basically moved from their original positions. The final scene is Wallace taking a taxi home, and mentioning that each street holds a memory for him, from his childhood to the present, and how this cheers him. He seems more upbeat for the encounter, although the voiceover still has him thinking about practical matters at the end.
I've seen this movie several times, and I always enjoy it. Perhaps I am a bit too much like Wallace, in that I always pick up on practical points of Andre's exploits that always seem to vex me. For one, this movie is set in 1981, and Poland had been firmly under Communist control for the last 35 years. What exactly were the Communist authorities doing while Andre, an American, had several dozen Polish citizens out in the woods carrying on a theatre workshop? I can't imagine they would have been too sympathetic. How did Andre even get into Poland? Likewise with Tibet, which is located inside Communist China. Remember, this is years before China became the more easily penetrable capitalist machine it is today. Why was it that the practical matter of making a living, and the costs of world travel while not working, didn't seem to impede Andre from traveling around the world, or even seem to enter his mind? What was his family doing all of this time that he was globe-trotting? The story of traveling to Poland is not the result of a geopolitically unaware screenplay, as Gregory actually did drop out of theatre for awhile in the late 70's and travel about the world, including to Poland.
However, it is still a fascinating movie, but you must concentrate because the movie is pure conversation, and if you get distracted at all you'll miss something. Not getting distracted is difficult, as the entire two hour conversation is food for thought. This surely isn't a film for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it. It's a great contrast between two people from the same world - New York's world of theatre - who have two completely different outlooks on life. One seeks for meaning in grand adventures in exotic settings and thinks everything in his life should be repeatedly examined for continuing validity, the other is content with the simple pleasures of life and enjoys stability and continuity.
Extra Features: New, restored high-definition digital transfer New video interviews with actors Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn by filmmaker and friend Noah Baumbach "My Dinner with Louis," an episode from the BBC program Arena, in which Shawn interviews director Louis Malle PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin and the prefaces written for the printed screenplay by Gregory and Shawn
Amazon may automatically link my review to the old DVD release of this movie, "My Dinner with Andre," in which case, this may still be confusing. Pay attention- I am referring in my remarks here to the new Criterion Collection DVD version, which has a photo of a knife and fork on a napkin, on a plate, on the cover.
When I checked, the first review which appeared on the Amazon page of this new criterion collection version is an old review from 10 years ago. It trashes the DVD release and calls for a new version. Well, it's this criterion collection version which, 10 years later, has arrived to correct the errors which the review talks about. I'm referring to the review here that is titled "But no stars for the DVD". So don't get confused-- this edition is new.
As for the movie itself, I'm taking the time to write these remarks because it's a great movie that is well worth watching and watching again. By its very nature, as a two hour conversation, you can't absorb all of it the first time, so watch it's more worth buying than many movies. In fact, it played a significant part in raising my interest to the post theatrical work of Jerzy Grotowski, who Andre discusses in the movie.