In the world of film, the works labeled ‘bold’ are often those which showcase shocking events, or put a spotlight on something that most people would rather not see. In such a context, it is an odd fact indeed that one of the most daring and excellent films of 1981 was a movie about two characters sitting down to dinner and having a conversation with each other in real-time: My Dinner with Andre, directed by Louis Malle and written by the two primary actors. Its daring nature, of course, comes from the elegant simplicity of its premise (though also from the far-ranging content of its writing), but that leaves the source of its excellence still to be accounted for.
Folks who have not seen My Dinner with Andre may hold the understandable-yet-mistaken notion that perhaps the film succeeds because the characters tell an exciting story, full of vibrant characters, like some kind of staged reading. In fact, the conversation is not a traditional narrative; the conversation is rather more similar to, well, a conversation. One of the men, the eponymous Andre (played by Andre Gregory), shares some recent biography and some philosophical notions, and the other man, Wally (played by Wallace Shawn), responds to Andre’s ideas. So, what is it that makes this movie work so well?
Well, that depends who you ask. But from my perspective, most fans of the film would give their own understandable-yet-mistaken interpretations. And now—apparently without an ounce of self-awareness—I will present my own interpretation of the film.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of My Dinner with Andre, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Others’ Interpretations of My Dinner with Andre:
On occasion, I find myself in forums among film scholars and enthusiasts discussing My Dinner with Andre, and the conversations are always interesting, but, at the same time, always predictable. The interlocutors rapidly enmesh themselves into one of two camps: those who see Andre’s philosophy of life as the key to the meaning of the film, and those who see Wally’s climactic response as the key to the meaning of the film.
Such positions seem to say far more about those holding to them than they do about My Dinner with Andre. After all, I might personally find Wally’s response the more appealing and laudable position, but this is little more than recognizing which character seems to agree with me more. Nothing whatsoever is learned about the meaning of the film from me agreeing with some of the things Wally says, just as nothing is learned about the meaning of a painter’s body of work by saying which of their paintings is my favorite. It is natural to defend the ideas of one’s favorite character, but quite another thing to say that the entire work reduces down to those ideas.
It is in light of these considerations that I feel assured enough to term those interpretations mistaken. (Obviously more rigorous and academic approaches to the film are exempted from these generalizations.) In order to step back from that kind of lopsided criticism, I will first quickly summarize the film.
The movie begins with Wally walking to the restaurant and detailing his struggles in the world of professional theatre. The majority of the film thereafter takes the form of extended monologues by Andre, who describes various atavistic, ritualistic, and spiritual experiences and ceremonies he has undergone while traveling. Eventually Wally, apparently frustrated, offers a vivacious defense of realism and humanism against Andre’s vague metaphysics. The pair part amicably, and Wally takes a cab home, discussing very briefly the effects of the conversation while one of Erik Satie’s beautiful Gymnopédies plays.
My Interpretation of My Dinner with Andre:
As much as I acknowledge all of the ways in which My Dinner with Andre breaks from tradition, I do think there are elements of a traditional narrative character arc here. Our protagonist is Wallace Shawn (consider not only his framing narration, but also the conspicuous perspective of the movie’s title), and the formative experience he undergoes is running up against a way of thinking which is alien to his own in almost every way.
The deep and abiding value of this experience is that it forces Wally to think much more pointedly and critically about his own values and philosophical notions. What are his priorities? What justifies his priorities? And, in effect, why does he disagree with Andre? Wally’s opening narration is curmudgeonly, as he bemoans his financial and professional woes almost throughout. But his closing narration is attentive, subtle, and introspective.
And as for Andre, I do not think he is the thoroughgoing mystic that most commenters treat him as. Recall, for instance, when Andre endorses the account of the environmentalist who sees New York City as a new model for a self-imposed concentration camp; in this same sequence, Andre goes on to express his fear that humanity is quickly leaving human beings, never to return. Andre is paranoid and uneasy; for all of his pleasant meanderings, he reveals over time that he remains dissatisfied. Wally, on the other hand, finds a clear expression of the simple, concrete pleasures (such as reading and drinking coffee) which give him regular access to satisfying (albeit not grandiose) happiness.
A telling set of lines, which will lead me to my overall point here, comes near the end of Wally’s opening monologue:
The reason I was meeting Andre was that an acquaintance of mine, George Grassfield, had called me and just insisted that I had to see him. Apparently George had been walking his dog in an odd section of town the night before, and he’d suddenly come upon Andre leaning against a crumbling old building and sobbing. Andre had explained to George that he had just been watching the Ingmar Bergman film, “Autumn Sonata,” about twenty five blocks away, and he’d been seized by a fit of ungovernable crying when the character played by Ingrid Bergman said, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
Andre seeks an apparently absent transcendent meaning (of the sort he sees in art, like Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea), whereas Wally is content with the corporeal meanings and discoveries in material reality. If there is a better distillation of the contemporary duality of humanity, then I am not aware of it. And the value of an interaction between philosophical forces so at odds is the energy inherent in the tension.
This energy sharpens Wally’s awareness of his conclusions, and turns his considerations away from the bills he talks about at the outset toward the humans and community near him in the city. As Andre is not our narrator, we do not see, even momentarily, the effect of the conversation on him; but we do not need to see it, for the effect on Wally and the effect on Andre are the same as the effect on the viewer.
I think many people misinterpret Wallace Shawn’s comment that he wrote and portrayed the character to kill the Wally-like parts of himself, which he relates to fear. I do see fear writ large across Wally’s opening narration, but Andre reveals far more pervasive fears than Wally’s money troubles, and there is something settled and resolved about Wally in his closing remarks. Or, at the very least, it could be said that if Shawn’s intention was to portray a worried static character, then he failed; he accidentally injected a stirring passion into Wally’s response to Andre, thus raising the two discourses to an even playing field. Few have put this idea about the valuable interplay of tense disagreement as succintly as did Roger Ebert, a longstanding fan of My Dinner with Andre, when he wrote in a 1999 retrospective,
What they actually say is not really the point, I think. I made a lot of notes about Andre’s theories and Wally’s doubts, but this is not a logical process, it is a conversation, in which the real subject is the tone, the mood, the energy. Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee. The difference is that, in Wally’s case, it’s real coffee.
This is by no means a definitive interpretation, and there are many other extant readings of My Dinner with Andre that I highly respect (some of which contradict my above thoughts). In particular, interpretations that trace the movie’s fixation on money are fruitfully identifying a thematic undercurrent which my overall interpretation largely ignores.
The one advantage my take on My Dinner with Andre can boast is that it makes a strong case for why so very many viewers find the film so very compelling: it has nothing to do with the half of the conversation with which you comfortably agree, and everything to do with the half of the conversation with which you attentively disagree. This is the experience of art: the exposure to the multiplicity of voices described by Mikhail Bakhtin. A viewer is apt to come away from My Dinner with Andre with Satie’s sweet, clear, precise music in their head, and paying some additional careful attention to their own thoughts and experiences—past and present—and those of others.