My Dinner with André (1981) has become famous largely due to impressions of the film that are often wildly off base. To many viewers it’s simply that film where two guys spend the whole time just sitting and talking (an impression that led to one of the funniest Simpsons references ever). Something like that might be an intriguing experiment, but it’s divorced from the actual character of the film. Although a conversation that long was still something new, filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer had already experimented with letting the action stop while characters had in-depth conversations. The act of having that marathon conversation is less interesting than what they actually talk about. At a comfortable remove of 35 years from the film’s premier, it’s easier to see cut out the noise and see what truly makes My Dinner with André a masterpiece.
The film stars Wallace Shawn and André Gregory. Shawn is an important playwright, but he is probably best known for his acting. First coming to prominence in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Shawn has specialized in playing variations on the trollish man, most famously in The Princess Bride (1987). Shawn wrote the screenplay to My Dinner based off of conversations with his friend André Gregory, a famous avant-garde theater director. Louis Malle, the great French director, has a less obvious influence on the film. The movie is so dependent on Wallace screenplay and Gregory’s stories that it’s easy to forget about his direction. But that’s by design, as Malle correctly knew that the film would only work if it eschewed any kind of visual acts and just focused on the conversation. It’s a difficult but appropriate choice.
Although this is a movie where two guys spend the majority of the film talking while getting dinner at a fancy restaurant, that simplifies what happens in the film. It actually opens with a short prologue featuring Wallace Shawn, playing a version of himself, walking through a bitterly cold and inhospitable city to meet his friend André Gregory for dinner. Shawn is a stand-in for the audience in many ways. His bourgeois concerns match that audience’s concerns; he worries about paying the bills, finding work, and his relationship with his girlfriend. He also worries about what his friend may have become: the last Shawn knew of Gregory, he had been travelling the world aimlessly and had had a minor breakdown when a mutual friend ran into him. We all have friends that have fallen out of touch, or who have changed so drastically that they barely resemble the person we used to know. Shawn’s reticence about seeing Gregory seems infinitely relatable.
When Shawn arrives at the restaurant he waits amongst Felliniesque coterie until Gregory finally arrives. Gregory is flamboyant and well-known by the wait staff. After sitting and exchanging some awkward pleasantries, Gregory largely controls the dialogue for the film’s first half; he simply has so many stories that he needs to tell. Gregory has been wandering around Europe after having a crisis in his art. He stopped directing plays and attended experimental workshops in Poland with other experimental theater directors. Gregory’s stories about his exploits while avoiding his old life are fascinating, but also wildly frustrating to Shawn. Even 35 years ago, Shawn was having a not-so-thinly-veiled conversation about the nature of privilege, and how a rich, white man like Gregory could just drop out of life in order to find himself.
Gregory’s stories sometimes make him sound like a gullible fool, like your friend who tries a different form of Eastern meditation each week and has given up gluten in order to help clear up their skin. He’s willing to try anything, no matter how out there it seems. He’s also given to flights of fancy, seeing ghosts and strange figures in churches. Shawn grows more and more infuriated as Gregory pontificates, attacking the bourgeois values close to him. That’s when the film switches over and let’s Shawn take over the conversation.
Shawn doesn’t have the kind of fascinating adventures that Gregory does. His part of the conversation is more about airing grievances. His complaints are a rebuke to Gregory and anyone who thinks that they can just run away from their problems. Shawn exposes Gregory’s blind privilege when he wonders if it’s really necessary for someone to climb Everest in order to really feel something. After all, most of us don’t have the means to climb Everest, so what is there left for us?
Just as it seems like Shawn is about to irrevocably ruin their friendship, Gregory steps back in and graciously admits that perhaps Shawn is right. And Shawn responds in kind and modulates his opinions to find some common ground with Shawn. It’s the most affecting part of the film, to see two old friends realize that their friendship stands on a precipice, and to jointly choose to step away from the edge. The whole movie has been about two extreme people, one off his rocker and the other deeply bitter, but their humanity rises to the surface at the film’s end.
Although the two characters spend most of the film talking in a restaurant, the scope of Gregory’s tales takes the audience across the globe. It’s a much greater reach than reductive descriptions of the film account for. The film leaves their conversation again at its conclusion as Shawn heads home, treating himself to a cab on the way back. His mood is hopeful, and the audience feels that same hope. The film ends with Shawn saying he can’t wait to get home and tell his girlfriend Debbie about his dinner with André. The line teases us with a second film, with the stories that Shawn would tell and how he would filter Gregory’s tales, then ultimately how Debbie might respond with her own stories. We’ll just have to imagine that conversation for now.