For all the subsequent hoo-ha over its supposed stuffiness, the 1981 two-hander My Dinner with André is an experimental film. It’s also frequently burdened with the descriptor “theatrical,” a categorization ringing true in the stage backgrounds of its actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, and further emphasized by the pair essentially working out their parts prior to the involvement of director Louis Malle.
A veteran from the international heyday of French cinema, Malle displays a deft touch, his restaurant scenes restrained but far from static. However, the movie feels less directed than ably captured, and while a line of influence can be drawn to Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes), Richard Linklater (Slacker, the Before trilogy, Tape) and most persuasively Noah Baumbach (notably an affinity for playwright Henrik Ibsen shared by While We’re Young and Shawn and Gregory’s most recent collaboration), the film persists as an exercise in the unconventional.
Indeed, much of the enjoyment in My Dinner with André derives from the departure from cinematic norms. One example: the persistent ambiguity in Shawn and Gregory playing characters named after themselves and how it mirrors an important aspect of their on-screen conversation. And the dialogue is anything but theatrical; to deride this movie with the terse “should’ve been a play” is to overlook the broad nature of stage acting and how it sharply contrasts with the intimacy documented here.
The intimacy avoids the crisp eloquence of sharply-scripted filmic conversation. Dominated early by Gregory’s tales of spiritually-inclined globetrotting, I can’t deny that the one-sidedness traveled to the borderline of obnoxiousness as Shawn lobbed banal prompts, the look on his mug uncomfortably incredulous.
My Dinner with André does offer an occasionally fascinating snapshot of time; there are lingering elements from the 1960s in its 1981 as well as recurring allusions to WWII and Nazis in particular. As the evening proceeds and Wally loosens up and begins speaking his mind, André’s responses become much more appealing. Additionally, the movie is impressively constructed, and not just in the writing.
Reduced from roughly three hours (at Malle’s urging, an unseen but vital directorial touch), My Dinner with André is smooth if not seamless (for a far more rigorous celluloid convo, seek out Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Gai Savoir from ‘69). In an aside, the film’s production manager is Lloyd Kaufman, the head of Troma linking this New York film to significantly less reputable Gotham-set doozies Combat Shock and Bloodsucking Freaks.
Today the movie might play like a cult item, but it’s actually anything but, having created enough of a splash that it was parodied by the Andy Kaufman curiosity My Breakfast with Blassie just two years after its arrival. Loved and loathed in approximately equal measure, the negative reactions to My Dinner with André are unsurprising; beneath Gregory’s philosophical questing and Shawn’s pragmatism the movie is largely an exploration of class comfort.
Only through precise socio-economic circumstances could these two people be having this particular conversation in this specific place. Bookending their exchange are images of Shawn in transit, his movements blanketed in monologue. The opening overdoes his existential funk a bit, malaise bordering on daze, but the ending is strong, our narrator refurbished and treating himself to a cab ride home, an action linked to a seemingly throwaway statement in the film’s opening moments. My Dinner with André is experimental but never sloppy, its rare pleasures born from discipline and inspiration.
Classic film-noir, Bollywood, Russian silents, old-school Hollywood musicals, gritty ‘70s dramas, Hong Kong action, cinema vérité, wide-screen Westerns, Psychotronic curiosities, experimental wonders, horror double features, decades of independents and the New Waves of France, Germany and Romania; over the years these genres and others have assisted Joseph Neff in not getting enough sleep. When not watching movies and reading books he writes music reviews for The Vinyl District.