My Dinner With Andre

“My Dinner with Andre (Criterion Collection)” (Louis Malle)

Saw this last week for the first time in ages, what a great film. It had been unavailable for quite some time before the Criterion Collection geniuses put out a new 2 disc edition

Wally and I would get quite upset because wherever we went people were saying, “It’s one of my favorite movies.” It’s one of Barack Obama’s favorite movies. He says he’s seen it eight times. So there was something very sad about the fact that it had disappeared.

[From ‘Andre’ inspires talk almost 3 decades later]

On the surface, sounds like a boring film, two guys yammering at dinner, but it isn’t.

Roger Ebert added it to his Great Films collection:

Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of cliches. I thought for a moment, and then answered, “My Dinner With Andre.” Now I have seen the movie again; a restored print is going into release around the country, and I am impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.

The title serves as a synopsis. We meet the playwright Wallace Shawn, on his way to have dinner with “a man I’d been avoiding, literally, for a matter of years.” The man is Andre Gregory, a well-known New York theater director. Gregory had dropped out of sight, Shawn tells us, and there were reports that he was “traveling.” Then one evening recently, a friend had come across him in Manhattan, leaning against a building and weeping. Gregory had just come from an Ingmar Bergman movie, and was shattered by this dialogue: “I could always live in my art, but not in my life

Like many great movies, “My Dinner With Andre” is almost impossible to nail down. “Two men talk and eat (in real time) at a fancy New York restaurant,” writes CineBooks. Wrong, and wrong. Not in real time but filmed with exquisite attention to the smallest details by director Louis Malle over a period of weeks. And not in a New York restaurant but on a studio set. The conversation that flows so spontaneously between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn was carefully scripted. “They taped their conversations two or three times a week for three months,” Pauline Kael writes, “and then Shawn worked for a year shaping the material into a script, in which they play comic distillations of aspects of themselves.”

Comic? Yes. Although the conversation is often despairing (Gregory speculates that the 1960s were “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished”), the material is given a slight sly rotation toward the satirical. There is a lot to think about in the torrent of ideas, but also a saving humor. Gregory plays a man besotted by the ideas of the new age; he almost glows when he tells Shawn about an agricultural commune in Britain where instead of using insecticides, “they will talk to the insects, make an agreement, set aside one vegetable patch just for the insects.”

[Click to continue reading My Dinner With Andre :: :: Great Movies]

Luckily, you can rent the film from Netflix, or purchase your own copy. It is one of those films that rewards multiple viewings, so owning your own version is not a bad idea.

At The Criterion Collection’s website, Amy Taubin writes, in part:

The idea for My Dinner with André originated with Shawn. For several weeks, he and Gregory recorded their conversations about the strange extended episode in the latter’s life when he went in search of the miraculous. The script made its way to Malle, whose enthusiasm for the project might have had to do with the challenge of making two men talking over dinner into a compelling cinematic experience. That is to say, it was a perfect fit for a seriously eclectic career. As much as Steven Soderbergh today, Malle seemed determined to try something new with every film.

He had made his mark, as part of the French New Wave, with an anxiety-ridden, noirish quartet of character studies—Elevator to the Gallows (1957), with its smoldering Miles Davis score; The Lovers (1958), which established Jeanne Moreau’s reputation as the thinking person’s sex symbol; the borderline nihilistic The Fire Within (1963); and Le voleur (1967), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo in what could be viewed as a rejoinder to Godard’s Breathless. He punctuated these walks on the dark side with the dazzling proto-pop-art ode to the city of Paris Zazie dans le metro (1960) and the somewhat less successful romp Viva Maria! (1965), which teamed Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. Despite his great talent for directing actors, Malle then undertook, as his filmmaking second act, a series of documentaries, notably the epic Phantom India (1969) and its devastating spin-off, Calcutta (1969). Malle’s third act took place largely in the United States, where he tried his hand at studio movies. In the strongest of them, Atlantic City (1980), Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster give performances that are both emotionally true and larger-than-life. But the American films that embody Malle’s understated mastery of cinematic pace and rhythm and his skeptical humanism are his two collaborations with Gregory and Shawn, My Dinner with André and, thirteen years later and just a year before his death, Vanya on 42nd Street.

In addition to the challenge of making a film that was literally all talk and no action, Malle must have been excited by the mix of fact and fiction in My Dinner with André (that’s true of Vanya as well), and by André’s descriptions of his far-flung journeys, which echoed aspects of Malle’s own travels in India. And there is also the matter of the Holocaust, the nightmare that haunts André’s quest for enlightenment. Wally is clearly embarrassed by these references—perhaps he thinks André is being excessive or flip when he says that sometimes he feels he should be “caught and tried like Albert Speer,” or that he imagines an SS officer identifying with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, a book that has great significance for him. The references are so casual that you can’t quite believe you’ve heard them, but they gather as the film goes on to become a dark subtext and suggest something that André never articulates: that in his travels, he was fleeing the horror of the past as much as he was pursuing the pure light of cosmic consciousness. Shawn and Gregory come from families of Jewish descent. Malle does not, but his traumatic childhood in France under the occupation became the subject of two of his most painful and personal films, Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987).

[Click to continue reading My Dinner with André:Long, Strange Trips – From the Current]

Until I watched the new edition, I didn’t realize who Louis Malle was, even though I really enjoyed Elevator to the Gallows [also available via Netflix]. I just added a bunch more of his films to my over-stuffed queue.

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