*Author’s Note: This is a rather long essay about a movie most people have never seen. It’s more my unfiltered and unedited stream-of-consciousness analysis than it is a well-researched piece of film criticism. The movie has lots of interesting things to say, and it’s worth a watch. You can also read a transcript of it here.
The first time I watched My Dinner with Andre, at the recommendation of my father, I fell asleep five minutes in and slept for the entire film. The film is often known as “that movie where two guys sit and talk for two hours,” which is both 100% accurate and entirely misleading. The second time I watched it, again with my father, I was completely spellbound, and it has since been one of my favorites. My Dinner with Andre is one of those movies where you get out of it as much as you’re willing to put into it, much like any good conversation, and these are my thoughts on it. (Spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie?)
The film focuses on the dinner conversation between Wally and Andre, characterized versions of the actors playing the roles, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. It opens with narration by Wally as he heads to dinner, filling us in with his backstory. Wally is a playwright (and an actor on the side), struggling to make a living while his girlfriend works nights as a waitress to pay the bills. In his youth he was wealthy, “an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money!”
Wally also gives us some background on Andre, a theater director, who used to be Wally’s close friend and a colleague in the business. Andre, who was a wildly successful director, one day suddenly quit the theater and took off around the world for months at a time (leaving his wife and children in New York) having all sorts of wild experiences and coming home telling strange stories. Wally says that he’s been avoiding Andre “literally for years” and that “The whole idea of meeting him made me very nervous. I mean, I really wasn’t up for that sort of thing. I had problems of my own! I mean, I couldn’t help André! Was I supposed to be a doctor, or what?”
We get a good handle on who Wally is at the start; the film is told from his point of view, at least as much as it has a point of view. Wally arrives at dinner before Andre, goes and gets a drink at the bar, and observes the people around him. Wally is a watcher and a listener (as most writers tend to be) and he decides the best way to get through the dinner is by asking Andre questions, like a PI, in order to help things go smoothly. When Andre arrives, he stands in striking contrast to Wally. Andre is tall, well tanned, attractive and outgoing while Wally is short, frumpy and bald with beady, skeptical (but amazingly blue) eyes.
Andre does the bulk of the talking for the rest of the film, and almost all of it for the first section. He tells the stories of his recent years, and the adventures and experiences he’s had, while Wally watches and listens with interest and skepticism, occasionally askinging questions and trying to get to the heart of Andre. What we come to learn by the end of the film is that these two men are both on a search for meaning in their lives, and in life in general, but have drastically different methods and ideas for getting there.
The dinner conversation seems to me to fall into three distinct sections: storytelling, interrogation and conflict. In this first section, Andre tells a collection of stories detailing his travels, with each seemingly more outlandish than the next. He begins by relating an encounter he had with a mutual friend of his and Wally’s, who was asking him to go teach a workshop in Poland. Andre however declines, saying to Wally, “I’d nothing left to teach. I’d nothing left to say. I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t teach anything.” The friend asks Andre to describe a situation in which he feels he would come to teach, and in the end Andre ends up teaching in a forest with 40 women (and some men) who speak no english, play a musical instrument and are considering leaving theater.
Andre and his group would sit around and do whatever came to mind, acting on impulse. He describes one event they did in the city before leaving where they hosted a “beehive,” some sort of improvisational event. It was like a “kaleidoscope” of movement, song and dance and Andre Gregory’s storytelling abilities shine as he speaks. In addition to other, larger topics, My Dinner with Andre is about the art of storytelling. I believe that part of Andre and Wally’s purpose behind the movie was to take something as theoretically dull as two people sitting and talking and to show how rich and colorful it can be. When they are speaking, their skill is able to transport the viewers into their stories, as effectively as if they were actually shown on screen.
Andre’s stories of the workshop in Poland, which also include two of his pupils falling in love and getting married and a christening they did for Andre in which he received a new name, are all about rediscovery. Andre, and presumably the people he was with, were all questioning their chosen profession. They’d lost their ability to relate to acting because they’d lost their self identities. As Andre puts it, “In this type of improvisation, the kind we did in Poland, the theme is oneself. So, you follow the same law of improvisation, which is that you do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do, but in this case, you’re the character. So there’s no imaginary situation to hide behind. And there’s no other person to hide behind. What you’re doing in fact is you’re asking those same questions that Stanislavsky said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: ‘Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And where am I going?’ But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself. Or to look at it a little differently: in a way it’s like going right back to childhood where a group of children simply come into a room, are brought into a room, without toys, and begin to play. Grown-ups were learning how to play again!”
The stories are about experiencing again what it means to be human. “What I think I experienced was for the first time in my life, to know what it means to be truly alive. Now that’s very frightening, because with that comes an immediate awareness of death,” he says. This is followed by a period where he tries to understand what being alive means. Now that Andre has returned to the land of the living, he’s now searching for the meaning of life. This is, of course, what all people are searching for, but Andre’s self-crisis and inability to live in his old life have caused him to start over from the beginning, and everything therefore is happening at a much faster rate.
He talks of hearing a voice from the sky say “Little Prince,” leading him to the book of the same name (which I admit I have never read). This in turn leads him, by coincidence (or providence?) to a magazine published the day after his birth containing the handprints of three famous surrealists and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince. Andre gives great weight to these events, insisting that they have meaning to him and about him. If the first parts of his story, concerning the workshop, were about being reborn and becoming a child again (he even got a new name), then this experience with The Little Prince is his new “teenage years”, asking why he’s here.
Andre then meets a Japanese Monk, Kozan, with whom he travels to the desert, in what could be called his “young adult period” of searching for answers. As he says, “We were searching for something but we couldn’t tell if we were finding anything… In other words, we didn’t know why we were there, we didn’t know what we were looking for, the entire thing seemed completely absurd, arid and empty. It was like a last chance or something.” Andre is coming to grips with the fact that the meaning of life isn’t just handed to you, and this thought frustrates him. He returns home to his family, bringing Kozan with him, and they attend Christmas Mass. While bored during Mass he sees a giant figure, a hallucination he describes in vivid detail, which he takes as a reassuring presence, the idea that inspiration and meaning can come in all kinds of places.
So he attempts to create his own meaning. He commissions a flag to be made, with the idea that by carrying this flag with him it would pick up “vibrations” from his experiences. The flag is made but it’s not what he expected, and no one seems to like it. His wife has a physical reaction to it, it causes a friend to hallucinate, and eventually the friend offers to burn it in a ceremony. This failure is followed by another, where he goes to India and returns feeling as though the trip was meaningless. His frustration compounds and his story culminates with his death.
Andre tells of the last big event he experienced, on Halloween the year before. He and a group of friends had gotten together with the intent of using that date as a “departure for something.” They each individually planned something for the group, but the final part involved death, burial and rebirth. He and his friends were taken to a ruined basement and told to write out their last will and testament, blindfolded and run through a field to a shed, stripped, washed and photographed, laid on a stretcher, lowered into the ground, covered with wood and buried, and uncovered later, “resurrected” and they danced until dawn. Andre describes the happenings with a mixture of fascination and horror, with his eyes unfocused as the memories pass before him, and it’s haunting to listen to. He says, “That was really the last big event. I mean, that was the end. I mean, you know, I began to realize I just didn’t want to do these things any more, you know. I felt sort of “becalmed,” you know, like that chapter in Moby Dick where the wind goes out of the sails. And then last winter, without thinking about it very much, I went to see this agent I know, to tell him I was interested in directing plays again.”
Andre finishes his story and tells Wally, “Frankly, I’m sort of repelled by the whole story, if you really want to know,” and compares himself to Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. (It’s the 3rd or 4th time Andre has referenced the Nazis, seemingly as a way to make his experiences and feelings sound more extreme.) Wally asks him why he would say that, and this begins the 2nd phase of the film. It still deals mainly with Andre’s experiences, and he still does most of the talking, but Wally takes an active part in the conversation, helping to shape it into something he can understand and relate to.
Andre is disgusted with himself, both for his inability to find meaning in his life and for the quest to find meaning that he feels has removed him and separated him from the world around him. He feels like he’s been acting like the rules don’t apply to him and that everything he’s done has been horrific. He sounds like a man who has given up hope: “And so the question is: when I get on my deathbed what kind of a person am I going to be, and I’m just very dubious about the kind of person who would have lived his life those last few years the way I did.”
Andre and Wally begin to talk, and Andre explains how he’s repulsed by the way people act, and by extension the way he acts. They discuss the false faces that we put on in order to appear the way society expects us to appear, and how we see only what we want to see without considering the human being standing in front of us, which Andre equates to living in a dream world, a false world. He talks about the death of his mother and how he put on a happy face in order to fit in and how his friends refused to see his pain. Wally talks about the threatening things people will say in the theater without even realizing the damage they are causing. As Wally says, “Because somehow in our social existence today we’re only allowed to express our feelings weirdly and indirectly. If you express them directly everybody goes crazy!”
Wally talks about going to New York parties and not understanding what’s going on, and finding the jokes and the stories people tell grotesque. “It’s just unbelievable. That’s the only way anything is expressed, through these completely insane jokes.” Andre’s response is, “that one of the reasons that we don’t know what’s going on is that when we’re there at a party, we’re all too busy performing.” They discuss the way that everyone is just playing a role in life, acting the way they think a father or a single person or an artist or whatever is supposed to act. They lament that everyone is so curious about what is really going on in other people’s lives yet they are afraid to open up and share their true lives.
Wally says he feels that people are so focused on their goals, plans and careers that they fail to see the world around them; that everyone has just turned on the autopilot. Andre gives a fanciful example of a man, Roc, who would intentionally shake up his life in order to avoid falling into a trance, and it allowed him to appreciate and really understand everything he experienced. By separating himself from the comfort of the routine, it sharpened his reality.
Wally then brings up the electric blanket that he and his girlfriend received as a Christmas gift, and he wonders if it’s changing the way he sleeps. Andre replies, “I wouldn’t put an electric blanket on for anything. First, I’d be worried I might get electrocuted. No, I don’t trust technology. But I mean the main thing, Wally, is that I think that that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way.” He equates the electric blanket to a tranquilizer, numbing us from the reality of our surroundings.
Wally disagrees, and this disagreement sets up the primary conflict between these two characters. It’s not a direct confrontation, and the dialogue continues to be amiable, but it becomes clear that these two men have vastly different ways of viewing the world. Wally says that he likes his electric blanket and would never give it up, because New York is cold. Andre may argue that comfort is a bad thing, but Wally is looking for more of it because the world is “abrasive” and he’s trying to protect himself.
They go on to discuss the failings of the theater, and the way it just confirms the opinions people already have of the world. People’s preconceptions of life and people are so firmly in place that Andre feels the theater is just doing more to reinforce them, deadening people inside. Andre argues that the only way to wake people up is for them to have experiences like the ones he’s been having.
Wally, however, is bothered by that idea, and offers his most impassioned dialogue of the film:
Yeah, but I mean, are you saying that it’s impossible, I mean…I mean, isn’t it a little upsetting to come to the conclusion that there’s no way to wake people up any more? Except to involve them in some kind of a strange christening in Poland, or some kind of a strange experience on top of Mount Everest? I mean, because you know, the awful thing is that if you’re really saying that it’s necessary to take everybody to Everest, it’s really tough! Because everybody can’t be taken to Everest! I mean, there must have been periods in history when it would have been possible to “save the patient” through less drastic measures. I mean, there must have been periods when in order to give people a strong or meaningful experience you wouldn’t actually have to take them to Everest!
I mean, you know, there was a time when you could have just, for instance, written, I don’t know, Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen! And I’m sure the people who read it had a pretty strong experience. I’m sure they did. I mean, all right, now you’re saying that people today wouldn’t get it, and maybe that’s true, but, I mean, isn’t there any kind of writing, or any kind of a play that–I mean: isn’t it still legitimate for writers to try to portray reality so that people can see it? I mean, really! Tell me: why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? I mean…I mean: is Mount Everest more “real” than New York? I mean, isn’t New York “real”? I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean…I mean, isn’t there just as much “reality” to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? I mean, what do you think? You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there’s nothing that different, in a certain way. I mean, because reality is uniform, in a way. So that if you’re–if your perceptions–I mean, if your own mechanism is operating correctly, it would become irrelevant to go to Mount Everest, and sort of absurd!
Andre says he agrees with Wally, but that for most people it’s too late, because humanity is bored. Their argument persists for the rest of the film. Andre offers more examples of his feelings, and Wally finally reaches the breaking point. I could copy the entire text here, but that would be a bit pointless, but like Wally I’ll try to do my best to express what they’re really trying to explain.
Andre was unable to find meaning in his life, so he went seeking these fantastical, extraordinary experiences, which were deeply meaningful to him but which left him depressed when he was forced to face reality again. He wishes that everyone could have experiences like his, because it would change the world. Wally, on the other hand, struggles through the requirements of modern life, dealing with things like work and rent and the daily relationships of people. But he finds meaning in the smallest of things, like reading a book or drinking his coffee. They both see the problems of the world, and they agree on them, but they disagree over the solution.
Wally mentions Andre’s experience with The Little Prince, and the fact that he found meaning in a magazine that featured the author. He compares this to opening a fortune cookie which warns against flying on a plane and changing your plans because of it. He argues that the cookie, which was produced in a factory somewhere, is in no position to know what’s going to happen on that flight. Basically, Wally is a man of science and Andre is a man of faith, but while Wally can find meaning in the reality around him, Andre has to find meaning elsewhere and bring that meaning to reality.
Wally argues that it’s human nature to do things, not content to merely be, but says that Andre is arguing that the true meaning only comes from simply being and that doing is just a distraction. Andre says that it’s possible to do all sorts of things and just be dead inside. He says his experiences were part of some sort of “training program” to teach him how to be a human being, and that maybe not everyone has to go through that but he did.
Their final point comes when the discuss the quiet moments when people are sitting together. Wally says those moments make him nervous, which is why he’d rather be doing something with someone than simply being with them. “In other words I’m adequate to do any sort of a task, but I’m not adequate just to be a human being.” The thought of opening himself up to that level of connection is scary to him, as if it’s a test he’s going to fail. But at the same time, it’s all for nothing if people don’t share themselves with others in an honest way.
Of course, that’s what My Dinner with Andre is about, in the end. After their conversation neither one of them has changed. Andre will most likely continue to pursue outlandish experiences in his quest for meaning, while Wally will continue to struggle with daily life while finding pleasure and meaning in the little things and the reality around him. But they both realize that any meaning they find in their lives is meaningless unless it’s shared. And not merely shared but understood and appreciated. Andre and Wally could not be more different, but the connection they have for 2 hours gives purpose to everything that came before, and a frame of reference for all of their experiences.
There are some great issues discussed in the film, without conclusions being forced on the audience. It’s easy to admire Andre and his spontaneous, abstract artistry and it’s easy to relate to Wally’s down-to-earth pragmatism, but neither way is ever presented as the correct one. Instead, the lesson is to share with others, and to be open to being shared with. It’s a lesson Wally learns well, as he closes the movie with his narration by saying, “When I finally came in, Debby was home from work. And I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.” He is taking the experience he just had and replicating it, meaningfully connecting to his girlfriend.
That connection is why we live, what we seek. It validates the meaning that we’ve constructed for our lives. It’s why we blog, or go to church, or talk to friends. The act of sharing of ourselves makes us real. It’s scary, and uncomfortable, and it leaves us open to all sorts of dangerous things, but it’s the only way to live.