It’s a rite of passage for young intellectuals to take part in a seemingly endless series of seemingly endless high-brow conversations with our peers. We talk and talk but are we really ever saying anything? Late nights are spent in cramped dorm rooms with irritated room mates as you pass the hours talking about god, free will, politics, art, and the future. Some of my most important and self-actualizing conversations happened as a friend and I listened to good music and just chatted away about the meaning of life. And these conversations are almost always incredibly fun to be a part of. A chance to stretch one’s self intellectually can never be passed up, but would it be fun to observe two others having a hyper-intellectual conversation for two hours as they barely eat their dinners? That was the question Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien) posed with his groundbreaking, experimental film My Dinner With Andre, and the answer was a resounding yes.
My Dinner With Andre is one of those films where it is exactly what it says on the tin but somehow so much more. Louis Malle hired two real-life friends, struggling playwright/actor Wally Shawn (Toy Story 3) and wealthy, eccentric stage director Andre Gregory, to write a two hour dinner conversation between the pair and then perform said conversation. And that’s what they did. The down-to-earth Wally Shawn and the possibly insane (though likely just very, very eccentric and sensitive) Andre Gregory sit down for a dinner after not seeing each other for years and talk about every possible subject that leaps into their minds. The well-traveled and well-storied Andre dominates the conversation through the sheer force of his magnetic personality as he recounts stories of his experimental theatre groups, living with a Japanese monk, being buried alive as part of an elaborate “production,” and what it means to truly be “alive” in the modern world among a plethora of other subjects.
It’s difficult to assess this film in traditional critical language because the film lacks many of the hallmarks of conventional cinema and is truly radical and experimental in its approach to storytelling. That may be because the film has no true plot in any sense of the word. Wally shows up at the restaurant, eats a dinner with Andre, they talk, they leave. The end. The characters don’t really grow or experience any transformation. They just talk. Endlessly. For two hours. There are moments where Andre Gregory will speak without interruption for over ten minutes. It’s astounding. The closest genre this film could fit into is a character study except in a very literal sense of the word where we get to know these two characters through a lens of what they love and what they talk about. There is no “doing” in this film as is taught to be central to any supposedly great film.
Yet, My Dinner With Andre is a truly great film for the success it finds in abandoning any pretense of being anything more than it what it is. Written by two people who clearly love stage performances and the rhythm and beauty of natural sounding dialogue, My Dinner With Andre is the type of aural feast of dialogue that is usually only served by people like Aaron Sorkin, Woody Allen, or David Mamet. Unless you are the same type of crazy person that Andre Gregory apparently is, you’ve never had this exact conversation but you’ve been in conversations like it if you’re anything like me, and the way the film captures the intellectual back-and-forth between the two is spectacular. You probably need to be an intellectual yourself to appreciate the subtlety and beauty of the conversation, but if you can lose yourself in their tete-a-tete, it is wondrous to behold.
I am not exaggerating when I say this film is nothing but two very smart, cultured men talking for two hours. Even when Wally is walking to the restaurant/leaving it, you still his neurotic ramblings to himself as you get some brief background to the conversation to come/has just occurred. So, if that sounds unappealing to you, don’t watch this movie. It’s going to bore the holy hell out of you. It will be, simply put, unbearable. But, if you currently or in your younger days found yourself lost in the types of conversations that Wally and Andre delve into throughout their dinner together, you will be taken on a marvelously bold ride and be stunned by Louis Malle’s gumption to make this type of film. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t take these kinds of risks.
Final Score: A
Quick last note before this is done. I’m going to start including trailers for the films I’m reviewing at the end of the review. And of course, the one for My Dinner With Andre has to be really awful. But, whatever. It will hopefully give my readers an idea of what the film is about beyond my own written words.