The fact that this film was even made; the fact that it was commercially successful; the fact that it ran for a year in one Manhattan cinema, and was acclaimed by many critics as the best film of 1981; all of these are, in any normal sense, remarkable. After all:
(a) It’s a film in which two rich men have dinner and talk. And nothing else.
(b) It pretty much declares that in the title.
(c) This was a year in which movie-goers could choose between a film called Raiders of the Lost Ark and a film called My Dinner With Andre, and a fair number of them chose the latter. As its co-writer and co-star Wallace Shawn might say, in another legendary role, “Inconceivable!”
(Incidentally, there is one moment in the movie where Shawn, playing Shawn — or a version of Shawn — we’ll come to that — actually does say “Inconceivable!”, and you realise, if you’ve ever seen The Princess Bride, that you’ve been waiting for him to say it all along.)
The two characters in the movie are Wallace and Andre, and they are played by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. If you lived in Manhattan in 1981, both would have been familiar to you: Shawn as a playwright, actor and son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, and Gregory as a leading director of experimental theatre. Their biographies in the film cleave closely to their biographies in “real” life (itself a theme of the movie), and they appear, although there’s a credited director (the great Louis Malle), to be talking, in real time, in a real restaurant.
The restaurant, of course, was not real — it was built in a studio — and the conversation was carefully scripted, by Shawn, over months of development work, based on recordings of many conversations between himself and Gregory. Like the apparently “anti-structure” films of Charlie Kaufman, it’s a meticulously constructed story with a solid three act structure, clear themes that develop throughout and, for Shawn’s character certainly, an understated sense of epiphany (and if you don’t believe that it’s possible to understate an epiphany, you haven’t yet watched My Dinner With Andre).
The meat of the conversation couldn’t be much bigger: how to live fully and with meaning, and how modern life gets in the way. And what’s striking, almost thirty years later, is that very little seems to have changed. Shawn is concerned that his work as a playwright is redundant, and that theatre has become ruled by commerce: it’s art that consoles, rather than provokes. At the same time, he’s aware that he lives within that economy: as he says ruefully, “When I was ten years old I was rich, I was an aristocrat, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money”. And besides, in his own life, he’s contented: he’s happy with his girlfriend, he enjoys life’s little pleasures — coffee, dinner, Central Park — and nothing could now part him from his new electric blanket.
To Andre, on the other hand, Shawn’s electric blanket is precisely the problem; the blanket, he says, “is like being lobotomised … Comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility”. Andre believes that the capitalist system has been designed to lull us with luxury, to distract us from the truth. “Someone who is bored is asleep,” he says. “Someone who’s asleep will not say no.” Andre has been on both a spiritual and literal journey: he has spent time with monks in Tibet, with a theatre director turned shaman in the forests of Poland, and on a remote Scottish commune where the residents reason with insects over which of their crop they may eat. He has stripped away civilisation, and emerged more open, more emotional, and more determined to expose the falsities of urban life: indeed, he was last seen, before this dinner, weeping uncontrollably in the street after watching Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.
Andre is eloquent, handsome, charismatic, Shawn small and nervy, hunched in fear, but the film is too smart to be a walkover: there are plenty of satirical digs at Andre’s spiritual revelations, which do at times feel like your smuggest friend’s status updates, and make you wonder who’s emptying the bins. It’s also self-aware enough to know that Andre and Wally’s arguments are what we’d now call first world problems: these are, after all, two Manhattan aristocrats bemoaning life’s artificiality while being served roast quail. And we should not forget that these are characters, not men: in a recent interview about the film, made for Criterion, Shawn said that he created the role of “himself” precisely in order to “kill” the part of himself that he plays.
But at its heart, and for all its sophistication and wit, My Dinner With Andre remains a call to arms: to resist the beguiling comfort of consumerism, to continue to ask the tough questions, to speak more honestly with one another, and not to ignore the man begging on the street between the restaurant and the cab. Thirty-three years later, it’s more relevant than ever, and as a film feels just as fresh. John Ford once said that “Directing is not a mystery, it’s not an art. The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes,” and the thrilling simplicity of My Dinner With Andre shows that it’s just as true today.