DIRECTED BY: Louis Malle
FEATURING: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory
PLOT: Struggling playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with his old friend, theater director Andre Gregory, who describes the mystical experiences he’s had visiting experimental theater workshops and communes around the world.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. The concept of a movie that is almost entirely a single dinner conversation is successfully experimental, and some of Gregory’s theories approach the bizarre, but Louis Malle has a couple of better candidates for the List of the weirdest movies of all time out there.
COMMENTS: Based on the description—there’s no plot per se, just two intellectuals sitting down for dinner at a swank restaurant having a conversation–you probably have no interest in seeing My Dinner with Andre, no matter how many times cinephiles tell you it’s a classic. I admit, the synopsis held no great attraction for me; I like Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle, but I never would have sought this movie out on my own, and I approached the prospect of viewing it more with trepidation than anticipation. Frankly, I was hoping it would not be as boring as it sounds—I mean, I like a good chat about life when I’m a participant, but I don’t see talking as a spectator sport. I needn’t have worried; although My Dinner with Andre assumes that you are reasonably intelligent and have a basic liberal education, it’s more accessible than it sounds. And, if you engage with it, it’s also more dramatic than it sounds.
The movie stars playwright/actor Wallace Shawn as a struggling playwright/actor, and avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory as an avant-garde theater director. The conversation is scripted, but it is based on actual discussions between the two men, who play exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves. The story begins with a dissatisfied Shawn complaining about his life: his career as a playwright isn’t putting food on the table and all he ever thinks about are his money problems. He is going to dinner with Andre, the theater director who produced his first play but who had recently dropped out of the New York theater scene to travel around the world, returning with strange tales of his adventures. Wally has heard Andre has been acting erratic and is nervous to meet him again. The first part of the dinner is almost a monologue by Gregory, who details his adventures in an experimental theater group in Poland where he directed a group of women who did not speak English; tells tales about his time in the Sahara with a Japanese monk who could balance on his fingertips; and relates a story about a ceremony where he was ritually killed and resurrected. Andre explains that he has been searching for experiences that allow him to be truly human, because he believes that modern man is fatally disconnected from reality. He also explains that, during this period in his life, he would spontaneously hallucinate, seeing birds flying out of his mouth when he looked in the rear-view mirror and a blue minotaur with flowers growing out of its body at midnight Mass. Although Andre is charasmatic, enthusiastic and lucid, these confessions cast him in a strange light. Is he really a mystic? Or does he have a touch of madness? Or is he just a man with an amazing imagination?
Wally listens with increasing interest as Andre relates his exploits, until, in the second half of the conversation, he starts to raise objections and fire back at Andre, whose vision of life he finds intoxicating but impractical. Wally says Andre’s lifestyle is too elitist: not everyone can have these experiences, and there is meaning to be found in reading good books and enjoying a cup of coffee. Neither Wally nor Andre gets the upper hand. Ultimately, Andre doesn’t convince Wally that it’s necessary to take extreme measures to find meaning in life. Yet, Wally still has a sense of epiphany. As he’s leaving dinner, he thinks with wonder of ordinary experiences he’s had: buying a suit, eating an ice cream… Wally comes away from dinner invigorated, not because Andre convinces him to change his life and start “really living,” but because he’s refreshed himself by an encounter with another mind, with another way of thinking about life. The reason My Dinner with Andre works is not because we take sides with either Wally or Andre, but because it reminds us of discussions we’ve had with our own dear friends, where we lose track of time and talk deep into the night. It recalls those treasured times we shared our deepest thoughts, and someone else thought enough of them to challenge us. It’s the conversation that matters, not the words spoken.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.”–Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who simply called it “an amazing film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)