The premise of My Dinner With Andre is disarmingly simple: a pair of old friends meet at a restaurant in New York and spend the evening talking. With the exception of a very brief prologue and epilogue, the entirety of the film takes place at the Café des Artistes, where Wallace Shawn arrives to discover that Andre Gregory, whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade, has a treasure-trove of anecdotes, insights and theories to share with him. Written and performed in its entirety by Andre and Shawn, the film is very much their creation – Louis Malle was a fairly late addition to the project and his input here largely consists of his ability to frame the conversation from enough angles and in enough ways to prevent it feeling like filmed theatre. At the same time, however, part of what is striking about the film is how minimal Malle’s intervention actually is, as he revolves through a fairly limited selection of shots and never pulls back more than about a foot or two from the table. For all that the conversation is structured around a meal, the restaurant itself never intrudes in any particularly pointed way, nor is it elaborated in any great detail, whether on its own terms or as a stimulus to further conversation. What ensues may not be filmed theatre, but it is nevertheless too circumscribed and chambered to leave the theatrical entirely behind either.
In some ways, that’s not so surprising, seeing that both Andre and Shawn draw on their careers as playwrights, directors and actors, with most of the conversations touching upon the future of the theatre in some fashion. Indeed, insofar as there is a throughline to Andre’s extended anecdotes, it seems to be the evolution of experimental theatre in the wake of the 60s – and, more specifically, the way in which the theatre has managed to incorporate the lessons of happenings, demonstrations, festivals and other collective events that blurred the distinction between acting and waking life as the Baby Boomers were coming of age. Time and again, Andre’s stories read like a dispatch from the frontline of experimental theatre, with many of his anecdotes springing from his time with playwright and theorist Jerzy Grotinski in the 70s, as he describes their shared efforts to find “a way to be onstage even when offstage,” a project that Andre perceives as being more urgent than ever at the start of the 80s, but also somewhat stalled by the foreclosure of the collective spirit of the 60s as well. In that sense, the film offers itself as a “new language,” a convergence of experimental theatre and cinema, even if one of the most striking ways in which it does this is to demystify and reduce cinema to its theatrical roots, transforming it into a medium with “no fantasy life, no dream life, no imaginary life” in a kind of effort to see “whether theatre can now do for an audience what Brecht wanted it to do.”
First and foremost, according to Andre, that directive means that people – both actors and non-actors alike – need to learn to play themselves, and improvise themselves, in ways that break down the distinction between acting and living. On the verge of the most media-drenched decade of the twentieth-century, the film seems prescient that beyond a certain threshold the theatricality of mediation ceases to be discernible, with Andre offering this quasi-theatricality and perpetual awareness of artifice as a kind of corrective. For all that he draws upon the 60s project of being “onstage even when offstage,” it feels more and more as if the true goal of 80s experimental theatre is finding a way to be offstage even when onstage, with the film going to some lengths to be considerably less than a film, and to turn Andre and Shawn’s presence into something considerably less than a performance. At one level, that’s evident in the confusion between improvisation and scripted dialogue, since it’s never quite clear how much of the film is staged and how much is made up on the spot, thanks in part to Malle’s elaborately and carefully orchestrated shot sequences, which initially seem to correspond to a similar level of deliberation on the part of Andre and Shawn, but gradually feel more and more dislocated from the ebb and flow of the conversation. At the same time, while Andre and Shawn are clearly playing semi-fictional versions of themselves, their charismatic communion seems authentic, which also makes it feel, in turn, as if this may be the film in which Malle comes closest to disclosing himself as well, if not autobiographically, then in terms of his material presence, with the camera exuding a manual, almost mechanical, presence within the mise-en-scene as well.
It is, however, in the actual spoken relationship between Andre and Shawn that this collapse of theatrical and waking life is most poetic – specifically, in the way in which Shawn responds to and prompts Andre’s ruminations. For all this this ninety-minute exchange is initially presented as a dialogue – and for all that Andre often seems to be promulgating something like a return to conversation as an artform – it is almost comically one-sided, with Andre sometimes speaking for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, and frequently only making the most cursory responses to Shawn’s asides, which tend to be in the form of incidental noises, appreciative gestures or leading questions anyway. In other words, this is much more of a monologue than a dialogue, a forerunner of Steven Soderbergh’s films about Spalding Gray, but part of what makes it so powerful and so moving is that Andre clearly does want to connect with Shawn, despite his more solipsistic tendencies. Time and again, Andre suggests that by learning to play ourselves, or improvise ourselves, we can break out of an isolation that has intensified ever since the end of the 60s, and in his continual and thwarted efforts to connect with Shawn he embodies something of that yearning as well.
As a result, it is Shawn, in some sense, who carries the emotional burden of the film – Andre might possess a wealth of inspiring anecdotes, but it is Shawn who gives him the gift of transforming it into something like dialogue. It’s appropriate, then, that the film opens and closes with a short monologue from Shawn, just as it’s appropriate that it’s Shawn’s voice that is the most memorable, always suffused with a slightly incredulous, hysterical edge that makes him the perfect companion to Andre. If Andre spends an entire film talking, then Shawn has to do something considerably more difficult and experimental as an actor – he has to spend an entire film listening, saying nothing for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, even though he’s there in virtually every frame. Maintaining interest in a monologue of this kind when subjected to the camera’s scrutiny is quite a disarming task, not because Andre is necessarily uninteresting – although he often is – but because the face naturally relaxes when listening passively, with the result that Shawn is always working against coming off as a prop, even or especially when Andre simply talks over him, or ignores what he says.
In some ways, these depictions of Shawn were, for me, the strongest part of the film, if only because they were the moments at which it really felt as if we were witnessing something like the collapse of theatrical and waking life that Andre recommends. In real life, there is always an element of theatricality to the way in which we adjust our faces to demonstrate a show of interest in an extended anecdote, especially when we know that the person telling us is watching us at the same time. Of course, this is true of virtually any social interaction, but there is something peculiar about studied, one-on-one listening that tends to break down any distinction between actual interest and feigned interest, to the point where we don’t really discern between the two in regular daily interactions. Watching Shawn’s theatrical, onscreen self pretend to be interested in Andre didn’t really feel all that different from watching Shawn’s real, offscreen self pretend to be interested in Andre, directing the audience, in turn, to contrive an interest in and engagement with the film that is indistinguishable from the kind of contrivance with which they might feign interest in and engage with Andre in real life.
What ensues, then, is a film in which we are made peculiarly aware of our constitutive passivity as an audience and encouraged to improvise our way out of it in some fashion. In another context, you might say that the film encourages cinephilic distraction, but Malle’s style is so austere that there’s not a great deal to really fix upon, just as there’s virtually no interruptions to the conversation from waiters, other customers, or the process of eating itself. One of the hallmarks of both a great actor and a great director is to maintain gravity while eating, and yet here that achievement is such a foregone conclusion that we barely stop to even contemplate the procession of dishes, just as Shawn orders the first thing he can translate on the menu. With no cutaways, flashbacks or even real establishing shots to diffuse this austerity of focus, the audience is forced to contrive an active interest that, over the course of the film, somehow becomes more authentic. If we are initially positioned, at the table, as passive listeners, we gradually come to feel like active members of the conversatiom, even or especially as Andre becomes increasingly unhinged, speaks faster and faster, and indulges in weirder and weirder beats and pauses, drawing Shawn and the audience into an “insane dreamworld” that’s finally not really about the content of what is said so much as the energy expended in delivering it – an energy that is clearly designed to have a collective capacity even or especially as it becomes increasingly solipsistic and sequestered from anything resembling direct communication.
In that sense, My Dinner With Andre isn’t quite a film, nor a play, but a descendent of the kind of paratheatrical exercise that Grotowski pioneered throughout the 70s. For Grotowski, as for Andre, theatre could only evolve by turning to communal or at least interpersonal situations that initially seemed as one-sided as the “relationship” between performer and audience that is taken to its logical conclusion here. In effect, you might say that Andre and Shawn recapitulate the classical theatrical relationship between actor and spectator in microcosm, only to gradually reveal that they are in fact offstage, or that onstage has started to collapse offstage, if only because Andre demands more of Shawn than any traditional actor demands of their audience. In aiming to find an alternative to traditional theatre, the monologue is just as viable a solution as the shared theatrical happening – where the happening deconstructs theatre, the monologue accelerates it, but in both cases the aim is the revision of theatre as we currently know it. In its strange oscillations between monologue and happening, solipsism and collective warmth, My Dinner With Andre never quite settles on an answer outside of its own singular form, although that’s what also makes it so unique, unrepeatable and – perhaps – unrewatchable.