My Dinner with Andre (1981), directed by Louis Malle. What a fantastic movie and what a fantastic age of posting entire movies on YouTube in 10-minute increments. Does such comfort and convenience numb me to the reality of the world? READ ON.
Like many others who hadn’t actually seen My Dinner with Andre, I was familiar with this movie through a few recent homages. The first was a throwaway Simpsons gag from the mid-90s, whereby the film somehow becomes the premise of a sort of role-playing video game that only someone as square as Martin Prince would play. (Long before seeing the movie, Martin’s rapt “Tell me more!” as he’s choosing the next option for his player always amused me.) But it was the Community season 2 episode “My Dinner with Abed” that actually convinced me to go straight to the source, the original 1981 film. I would be remiss if I ignored the movie that this fantastic episode relied so heavily on.
My Dinner with Andre stars Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory playing, presumably, versions of themselves. Two old friends from the theater world in New York, it’s been years since they’ve seen one another. Wallace has been purposely avoiding Andre, who has, according to mutual friends, been disappearing on worldwide pilgrimages. When they’ve bumped into him sporadically around the city, he’s been acting oddly — crying inconsolably, even, in a recent event. Once a close friend, now estranged, Wallace has gotten roped into this dinner and is dreading it. But a small part of him is looking forward to it, the one that likes to pretend he’s a private eye. Wallace wants to unravel the mystery of what happened to his friend, why he’s disappeared from the theater scene and chosen this strange path he’s on now.
The first half of the movie most of us would identify much more with Wallace. The viewer is essentially in his shoes, after all, forced to listen to the strange travels and the revelations of Andre, with whom the bulk of the conversation rests. You see Wallace’s bemusement and discomfort as probes Andre for his stories, without giving away too much of his own reaction. And Andre delivers — he’s been to Scotland to the spiritual community at Findhorn; he’s been to the forests of Poland, hosting strange improvisational theater jamberoos with people who don’t speak a word of English; he’s been buried alive, however briefly, in an experimental theater performance on All Saint’s Day; he’s communed and traveled with a Buddhist priest to Africa. His account is full of strange places and happenings, his motivations no less so, given how genuine and bare he is as he describes his mental state as he’s embarking on all of these adventures. He was looking for answers far away from his old life, when that life proved insufficient.
At first you think, what a strange guy and a strange account being told in the middle of this schnazzy restaurant in New York. Wallace must be thinking so too. By all accounts, Andre is a stranger. But then I started thinking about Wallace and his own discomfiture in that restaurant. Ill at ease from the moment he stepped in — it was Andre who chose such an upscale restaurant, not Wallace, who’s struggling to pay his bills — Wallace further betrays his separateness by somewhat abashedly mentioning that he doesn’t really know what anything on the menu is, and then expressing surprise that the quails they’re served are so small. The waiter gives him odd glances throughout, too.
Suddenly, Andre doesn’t seem quite so strange, or at least not so much more out of place than Wallace. Neither of these men quite belongs in this comfortable little haven they’re inhabiting for the evening. And this idea of their belonging, the circles they run in, how they relate to the people around them, occupies much of the rest of their conversation — this time with a more engaged Wallace — and it is what makes this movie so fascinating. A crux of their conversation rests, I think, in the mere recognition of all these strange aspects of life that usually pass unspoken. Like social niceties that don’t allow you to express what you’re really thinking and feeling, and how those thoughts and feelings seem even more obscured by the inability of people around you, even those you’re supposed to be closest to, to perceive them. Or the way people seem to act out their own lives as roles, like (for instance) the doctors you know tend to behave a certain way and seem to be in accord with your idea of what a doctor should be.
The central conflict is the question of how these two men approach life, knowing what they know. Wallace claims, in the end of the movie, to be unable to imagine a better existence than one like the one he’s living now, where he’s working towards a modest goal day in and day out, where each night he comes home to his girlfriend and his electric blanket (which he does NOT want to give up). What’s so wrong about that? But interestingly, Wallace doesn’t act so rock-solid in his satisfaction. Earlier in the movie, he expresses doubts about his own self-perception. You see, Wallace thinks of himself as a pretty good guy…but in relation to what? His own relatively small circle? What about when you expand that circle? What about when you consider him in relation to the rest of the world? There’s doubt here about just how good a life he is living. But at the same time, Wallace rejects Andre’s idea that you must constantly be removing yourself from these comfortable, familiar situations in order to truly experience that ever-elusive “Reality.” (Is reality all it’s cracked up to be, anyway? And how great can it be if you have to give up your precious electric blanket?) If for no other reason, Wallace seems to find the notion that you have to take yourself off to such far-removed locales a troubling one because of its elitism: the introspection afforded to these two men is already something of a luxury, while actually acting on these urges to discover, as Andre has, is even more unattainable for the vast majority of people.
No one reaches any real answers during this dinner — it’s a good one, they shut down the restaurant — but by movie’s end Wallace is, at least, a little more awake than he was before this singular dinner with his old friend. As he treats himself to a rare taxi ride home, he can’t help but notice that so many of the places he’s passing hold memories for him, which he recalls fondly.
This final scene occurs with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 playing in the background, and because it is such a beautiful piece of music, here it is. Try not to melt with nostalgia and longing as you listen to it.
And here, for fun, is a snippet Community’s own excellent recreation of My Dinner with Andre: “My Dinner with Abed.”