My Dinner with André: Long, Strange Trips

Seemingly nonchalant, borderline delirious, My Dinner with André is the result of an inspired collaboration among its actor-writers, Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, and its director, Louis Malle. In the decades since its 1981 debut, this tiny, impeccably crafted independent movie has inspired myriad prose pieces and a slew of witticisms that riff on its title. Nothing, however, captures its eccentricity and perhaps the reason for its effect on viewers as neatly as this line from Vincent Canby’s New York Times review: “At times,” Canby wrote, “My Dinner with André suggests a reunion of Christopher Robin (Mr. Gregory) and Winnie-the-Pooh (Mr. Shawn) thirty years after each has left the nursery to pursue separate careers in the theater.” And, indeed, the film evokes the exalted space of childhood friendship, where confidences are exchanged and imaginations run wild without fear of judgment.

The film is a deceptively simple two-hander. A playwright and actor named Wallace Shawn (played by playwright and actor Wallace Shawn) walks through the dilapidated streets of a not-yet-gentrified SoHo in New York, on his way uptown to have dinner with the theater director André Gregory (played by the theater director André Gregory) at a sleekly appointed restaurant of André’s choosing. On his way to this meeting with a man he once regarded as a close friend and his most valued colleague in the theater but whom he hasn’t seen in many years, Wally, as he is known to his friends, muses about how much he dreads seeing André again. He’s heard that the director is in a bad way; having spent the last few years traveling around the world in search of transcendent experiences, he has recently been seen sobbing on the street and talking to trees.

Voice-over gives us access to Wally’s unspoken thoughts as he rides uptown on the graffiti-covered subway—his doubts about this meeting and also his ambivalence about his own situation (an ambivalence that, interestingly, he will deny in his argument with André toward the end of their dinner). Wally has had some artistic success off-Broadway, but the economy of off-Broadway being what it is, he is forced to bolster his income by trading on his distinctive physical presence and vocal delivery to play “character” roles in movies. Wally’s girlfriend, Debbie, also contributes to the rent, by working as a waitress three nights a week, a situation that dismays Wally less, it would seem, for cutting into the time she has available for her own writing (Debbie is, or rather is based on, fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg, Shawn’s longtime companion) than because, on the nights she waits tables, she’s unavailable to cook him “delicious dinners.” (Eisenberg will soon be glimpsed for about two seconds, playing not Wally’s girlfriend but a soigne patron of the restaurant where Wally and André have their dinner—and I hope, given Wally’s concern about their finances at the time, that she was paid the Screen Actors Guild’s union rate for extra work.)

When he arrives at the restaurant, Wally’s misgivings seem justified. The matre d’ looks askance at his frayed jacket and wrinkled pants, the ill-fitting clothes emphasizing his strangely proportioned silhouette: large head, no discernible neck, short, stubby legs. Given that Wally has informed us that he was raised on the Upper East Side, in a cultured, affluent family (the father of the real Shawn was the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn), one has to wonder if he (that is to say, Wally the character) has dressed down as an act of defiance or if all his clothes actually look as if he’s slept in them for weeks. When his dinner companion appears, the difference between the two couldn’t be more marked. André is tall, with long limbs, a long face, and a long, beaklike nose, and his long, narrow cashmere cardigan is as elegant as a smoking jacket. He is a regular at this restaurant, and his social grace, evident in how he greets the bartender, consults with the waiter, and guides Wally through the menu of French and Mitteleuropean cuisine, seems likely to have remained intact in all the exotic places he traveled to in his search for enlightenment. For the next forty minutes, André talks almost nonstop, barely pausing to dismember the succulent quail that both he and Wally have ordered, or to butter a bit of bread and with a slight flourish of the arm—like a pelican half unfurling its wing—pop it into his mouth. Wally, on the other hand, limits himself to such comments as “Gosh” and “Uh-huh,” or such probing questions as “What happened then?” and “André! How can you say something like that?” It may be that Wally is as disengaged as he seems, but it’s just as likely that he has difficulty balancing talking and eating, since even his monosyllabic remarks cause him to expel bits of food onto his lips. Not a pretty sight, but André, engrossed in his reminiscences, seems not to notice.

For the New York art film audience of the early 1980s, some of the pleasure of My Dinner with Andréinvolved sorting out the differences between the characters of Wally and André as they appear on the screen and the real-life Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, both well-known figures in the city’s experimental theater world. In the late sixties, Gregory had founded the Manhattan Project, a theater group whose methods, like those of its contemporaries—among them the Open Theatre, led by Joseph Chaikin, and Richard Schechner’s Performance Group (which soon became Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group)—involved lengthy rehearsal periods and extensive use of improvisation. The Manhattan Project’s signature production was Alice in Wonderland (1970), an appropriately surreal, elegant, and quite funny adaptation. By the time My Dinner with André was released, Shawn had become instantly recognizable, thanks to his role as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Several of his plays had been produced off-Broadway, including Our Late Night (1975), which was directed by Gregory and won an Obie Award. (The two continue to work together today.)

The idea for My Dinner with André originated with Shawn. For several weeks, he and Gregory recorded their conversations about the strange extended episode in the latter’s life when he went in search of the miraculous. The script made its way to Malle, whose enthusiasm for the project might have had to do with the challenge of making two men talking over dinner into a compelling cinematic experience. That is to say, it was a perfect fit for a seriously eclectic career. As much as Steven Soderbergh today, Malle seemed determined to try something new with every film.

He had made his mark, as part of the French New Wave, with an anxiety-ridden, noirish quartet of character studies—Elevator to the Gallows (1957), with its smoldering Miles Davis score; The Lovers (1958), which established Jeanne Moreau’s reputation as the thinking person’s sex symbol; the borderline nihilistic The Fire Within (1963); and Le voleur (1967), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo in what could be viewed as a rejoinder to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. He punctuated these walks on the dark side with the dazzling proto-pop-art ode to the city of Paris Zazie dans le metro (1960) and the somewhat less successful romp Viva Maria! (1965), which teamed Moreau and Brigitte Bardot. Despite his great talent for directing actors, Malle then undertook, as his filmmaking second act, a series of documentaries, notably the epic Phantom India and its devastating spin-off, Calcutta (both 1969). Malle’s third act took place largely in the United States, where he tried his hand at studio movies. In the strongest of them, Atlantic City (1980), Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster give performances that are both emotionally true and larger-than-life. But the American films that embody Malle’s understated mastery of cinematic pace and rhythm and his skeptical humanism are his two collaborations with Gregory and Shawn, My Dinner with André and, thirteen years later and just a year before his death, Vanya on 42nd Street.

In addition to the challenge of making a film that was literally all talk and no action, Malle must have been excited by the mix of fact and fiction in My Dinner withAndré (that’s true of Vanya as well), and by André’s descriptions of his far-flung journeys, which echo aspects of Malle’s own travels in India. And there is also the matter of the Holocaust, the nightmare that haunts André’s quest for enlightenment. Wally is clearly embarrassed by these references--perhaps he thinks André is being excessive or flip when he says that sometimes he feels he should be “caught and tried like Albert Speer,” or that he imagines an SS officer identifying with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, a book that has great significance for him. The references are so casual that you can’t quite believe you’ve heard them, but they gather as the film goes on to become a dark subtext and suggest something that André never articulates: that in his travels, he was fleeing the horror of the past as much as he was pursuing the pure light of cosmic consciousness. Shawn and Gregory come from families of Jewish descent. Malle did not, but his traumatic childhood in France under the occupation became the subject of two of his most painful and personal films, Lacombe, Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987).

My Dinner with André was shot over two weeks, on a set designed to resemble the Cafe des Artistes, a favorite New York restaurant since 1917 for an upscale bohemia. The coverage that Malle devised is extremely simple: mostly medium close-ups, reverse angles, and some pans between the two characters. Occasional cutaways to other diners, the waiter, and a strategically placed mirror on the wall next to the table add a bit of visual variety, but what matters is the conversation, which begins as a monologue and then takes a sudden turn into a sputtering, not entirely coherent, but heartfelt intellectual argument. André’s seductiveness as a storyteller has to do with the unstable mix of emotions bubbling beneath his smooth, urbane delivery. He’s not only eager to share his adventures with Wally (and, by extension, with us), he is desperate for an understanding ear. His desire to reach out to someone who can possibly make sense of what he has put himself through and reassure him that he’s not as mad as a hatter wins our sympathies. The more Wally resists him, the more we’re drawn to André’s side.

André’s adventures took him first to the forests of Poland, where the experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski offered him forty actors with whom he could do anything that came into his head. He journeyed to the Sahara with a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who later moved in with André, his wife, Mercedes, and their two children. Perhaps to escape the monk, he was off again to Findhorn, a community in Scotland where, according to André, the communards reasoned with insects and convinced them to keep to the part of the farm that was allotted to them. Then it was on to Belgrade for another meeting with Grotowski, and thence to Montauk, where on Richard Avedon’s estate he participated in a ritual in which he was buried alive (nearly) so that he could be reborn.

It was Grotowski who clearly had the largest influence on André, just as he had influenced the great British director Peter Brook and pretty much every experimental theater company from the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s. The acting technique that Grotowski delineated in his book Towards a Poor Theatre and that New Yorkers witnessed firsthand when he brought his troupe, led by Ryszard Cieslak (one of the most charismatic performers this writer and former actor has ever seen), owed a great deal to the teachings of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, who in the 1920s founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man outside Paris. What Gurdjieff called “the Work” was intended to wake people from their automatonlike existences by forcing them to change habitual behaviors. The Gurdjieff Work, or the version that intrigued American artists and spiritual seekers during the 1950s and 1960s, was ritualized and extremely ascetic. Brook’s film Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979)—the title is taken from one of Gurdjieff’s books, but it could be used as a description of what André did on his own spiritual journey--documents the “sacred dances” practiced by Gurdjieff’s disciples. Grotowski’s version of the Work, on the other hand, involved loosening inhibitions and opening the practitioner to unconscious impulses and transcendental forces. And Grotowski’s decision to expand the Work from the theatrical stage to the stage of life causes André to drop out of the theater to try to follow in his footsteps.

André’s quest, which has bugged Wally from the moment he set out on his own journey uptown, finally makes him go on the attack, and the second half of the film slowly shifts to a vehement argument between the two men. Wally presents himself as a scientific rationalist. He views André’s brand of “magical thinking” as ridiculous and his traveling hither and thither in search of who knows what as, at best, an indulgence that he cannot entertain, if for no other reason than he isn’t rich enough to afford it. Wally claims that he’s happy if he discovers, when reaching for a cup of yesterday’s coffee, that “no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight.”

We might have a sense of the anger that Wally has been keeping in check from the way his upper lip curls under, so as to bare his teeth when he smiles his characteristically pained smile. But the more he challenges André, the more he’s forced to admit his own confusion. And it’s the same for André. In the end, it’s the sharing of confusion that returns them to the empathetic relationship they had many years before.

And then the dinner is over. Nothing is concluded—not for Wally or André, and certainly not for the audience. But on the way home, Wally is surprised to find that something has changed in the way he attends to the city as he sees it from the taxi window. And that slight shift in consciousness is what André and Grotowski and Gurdjieff would applaud. And we might do the same as the image fades to black.

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