My Dinner With Andre, Revisited

“If you’re just operating by habit then you’re not really living.”

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I can’t recall how long it’s been since I saw this 1981 film about two men who meet for dinner to talk about Andre’s long, strange trip of the previous two years. What I do recall is that I enjoyed the movie so much that I bought the book, something I did with another thought-provoking film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (In this case the book is simply the screenplay.)

Before writing this I checked to see if I’d already written something about the film and found that I had not, though twice I referenced it when writing about other things. The play Red, about Mark Rothko, and The End of the Tour — about David Foster Wallace — each had scenes that reminded me of the dialogue in Andre, stories with virtually no action, designed to bring the dialogue and its cerebral epiphanies to the forefront.

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Public domain.

The two characters in this movie are Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. Wally is a playwright who has been struggling financially as of late. Andre is a theater director. Wally is frumpy and ordinary, Andre eccentric, thoughtful and wise. He evidently has money, since the restaurant he’s selected for the meeting is posh and upscale.

The manner in which Andre reels off stories of his increasingly bizarre experiences, and Wally’s reactions to them, is what keeps us from getting bored to death. Perhaps, too, the camera angles along with the whole process of eating a multi-course meal also contribute to maintaining the viewer’s interest.

The film is directed by French film director Louis Malle. With the exception of Wally’s subway ride and walking through the streets of New York on his way to meet Andre, the entire film is shot inside the restaurant, with most of it taking place in a cramped little space near a window. During this first three minute sequence we hear Wally’s anxious thoughts. He’s heard that someone saw Andre sobbing in the street. There were other signals of Andre being in a very different place mentally. As it turns out, he really is.

There are so many interesting ideas dished out in this film. None of the storytelling seems forced. It’s delivered matter of fact, but righ with zingers that make you want to pause and ponder. Here’s one that struck home:

“We can’t be direct, so we end up saying the weirdest things.”

That line struck me because I’d just finished reading, then watching Never Let Me Go, which very much corresponds to this notion. That is, so much of what we want to share is locked up inside. We hint at it, but for one reason or another never say it, perhaps for fear of being so naked and vulnerable.

A friend of mine shared a book with me earlier this year titled Things I Wish I’d Said, which also goes along with this theme. And since the author of Never Let Me Go was Kazuo Ishiguro, I can see this pattern in his other books, of characters who have things going on inside them, aching to get out. ( Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled come to mind.)

There were other places where I stopped the film to write down scraps of dialogue.

“If you’re just operating by habit then you’re not really living.”

That seems to be an underlying theme in the dialogue. Whatever Andre has gone through has increased his awareness of himself, his world and the world around him.

A little further on, while talking about the routines people get into, one of them observes:

“Things don’t affect people the way they used to. I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by something.”

The exchange isn’t all one sided. Together they get to a place where they talk about what it means to be human. Andre then shared this bit which, if you think about it, sums up the way that a lot of us live a lot of our lives.

“I haven’t been a human being. I’ve been a performer. I haven’t been living. I’ve been acting. I’ve acted the role of a father. I’ve acted the role of a husband. I’ve acted the role of a writer.”

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Public domain.

The screenplay was written by Wally and Andre, the movie’s central characters. The first half is primarily about Andre’s experiences after dropping out of the theater scene. The second half features the two men dissecting the features of one another’s world views, which are clearly in conflict. Can we really be fulfilled if we are just part of a bigger system that manipulates us into acting in various ways, wanting things that have been prescribed for us by the system that shapes even our desires? How do we even know who we are? Are all our actions just something we do to stave off boredom and a sense of meaninglessness?

Thomas Mann liked to minimize the action so as to amplify the philosophical issues his characters wrestled with. The Magic Mountain and Death In Venice are examples of this form of storytelling, each in their own way. My Dinner stands as quite a contrast with our modern action hero SFX thrill rides, both in the storyline and the budget. Less than a half million to produce.

I watched the film again because I wondered if it would hold up after four decades. It certainly has something at its center that is worth talking about.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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