Updated: Jan 21
"You can't have dialogue without fear of judgement these days."
The statement above certainly enforces the notion we're living in some agitated state of an Orwellian nightmare; constant agitation, constant scrutinization, constant tracking, constant manipulation, constant painstaking marketable propaganda soaked in revenue stressors. Of course society is having a meltdown as every man, woman, and child is out for themselves chasing some kind of purpose. With all this word vomit, are you ready to go down the rabbit hole of existential rumination?
I've been wanting to revisit this film for quite a long while now and am extraordinarily grateful to have finally stumbled across a Criterion copy of it over the weekend. This is perhaps the one instance where watching two men jibber jabber about their lives for the entirety of a feature length film is somehow enchanting to me. Could you get away with something like this today in 2022? Being the optimist I am, I think you could but only a select few would appreciate it, the rest of the population would mindlessly suck on their iphones for a 15 second TikTok video. If I had the proper funds, cast, and crew, I'd gladly develop my own version of this film, differentiating it from a female perspective. My own dreams aside, the dinner party "genre" interests me in the clash of ideologies despite how awkward or dreadful it would feel to be a part of such an occasion but I often find these types of films almost always lean in a darker pessimistic disposition. Look at BEATRIZ AT DINNER or Karyn Kasua's THE INVITATION, the leading antagonist in both films are exceptionally proud of who they are, how they got to where they are and will exploit their dinner guests with their vernacular of power enchanting them to devastation, disaster, and perhaps death. However in Louis Malle's 1981 MY DINNER WITH ANDRE is a somewhat modestly financed indie experiment that has an element of indirect dread; life is too damn short, we need to take action. It's simple but heavily loaded to the brim with the musings of a man probably just facing his immortality.
The premise is as straightforward as it is ambiguous in that two old friends from a theater group reconnect through a casual dinner. All taking place in a single location between two actors played by Andre Gregory (Andre) and Wallace Shawn (Wally) all shot on a Arriflex 16SR film camera which makes the whole damn thing magical with all that grain. Camera movement is obviously very limited as most of is shot statically but they had room for some creative flair with the addition of mirrors placed strategically so we can see the actor's facial expression throughout most dialogue. There are numerous conversations throughout the dinner that invites the viewer to contemplate their own lives, thoughts, morals, questions, memories, and feelings which is one of the great powers this film percolates from depth to surface. For instance, when Andre talks about how "we're living in a fantasy world of our own making" which really strips us of getting to authentically experience our own connection to every single moment we make. We've somehow managed to divisie a way to be on autopilot as Andre adds, "comfort can lead to a dangerous tranquility." He's pretty much asking if not pleading the audience to reevaluate their lives, enlisting us to pursue more than what we're building as a perceived modern day concentration camp. It's heady, bold dialogue captivatingly authentic yet inconceivable in reality as most people are not always fully engaged in absorbing topics without one getting defensive especially if it questions one's beliefs which ultimately terminates the conversation. Nowadays people's discourse is heavily concentrated and isolated in an online arena behind the comfort of our cellular screens with the absence of physical expression unless of course you're video calling someone but even so still feels like an obstruction of sorts. In the beginning we learn what Andre has been up to for the past several years since leaving the theater and it all establishes this awareness of being conscious and seeking transcendence through the various theater workshops he's taught abroad or fascinating people he's met along the way stirring him in the direction of what it truly means to embody what it's like to live moment to moment consciously aware of everything you do. Whether that's living in a magical forest, tossing a teddy bear back and forth, or meditating in the Sahara desert, Andre seems to have total control of the conversation whereas Wally is his audience. Barely partaking in the conversation but really only asking questions because he dreads this dinner. Andre's attitude has a very performative function which ironically is what he's crusading against. He even says he has to learn how to be a human being again, but what does that really mean? Perhaps he's performing for Wally in that filling the void of his mysterious absence in essence is like watching his own play. Wally, being a playwright and Andre a theater director and the dinner is the stage of his performance. As a hypothesis what would be interesting to me is if all of this was an elaborate hoax in which Andre really has been suffering from depression utilizing his time away from the theater to coax himself out of said depression which makes sense in filling the evening retelling his adventures whether fabricated or not. And maybe that's what happens to all of us to some extent. We do something we genuinely enjoy for decades of our lives to realize one day, we really don't want to do it anymore, and when we face such a prespice in life we can either choose to explore something new in hopes of finding a new joy or battle on with what we were originally doing awaiting burnout to slowly kill us.
In essence both men come from shared similarities but their views on how they individually live their lives is starkly contrasted in their representation of awareness. See, Andre has a demeanor where he's intuned with everything around him or at least is aware of it whereas Wally is absorbed by the notion he's a failure and anyone around him is aware of this. I love how established these two characters are in the first act, and by the second act there appears to be a kind of argument ensuing but it's blanketed in subtley, but also Wally is beginning to voice his own opinions against the things Andre believes in. So it's neat to see him wake up, use his brain and express his thoughts and feelings. Wally is a rational thinker yet Andre sees purpose in magical thinking. For instance the fortune cookie debate, Andre believes in the words embedded in a cookie acting as a kind of guide, but for Wally, he sees nothing but a piece of paper with words printed out months ago from a corporation that mass produces the product. He further argues that somehow the future is sending messages backwards to the present which means the future must already exist in some context. Which further indicates that A you either believe the universe's purpose is to send messages that serves some kind of meaning or B the universe's purpose is to send messages and it means nothing. What's interesting is how Andre believes that by leaving yourself to the unconscious can leave you vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and he furthers another argument how the exaggerated worship of science is attributed as some magical force in being the answer to solving every problem we create. Ultimately this is a song and a dance of the greatest kind especially since we live in a world where science and religion or government and religion or education and religion, everything that has to do with a kind of faith is put into question yet science has an annoying certainty that provides comfort and yet residing in such comfort can be dangerous ground as said before. I feel like I'm going in circles or perhaps we just live in a paradoxical world. Nonetheless, what it comes down to is both men face a kind of crossroad, where they question the nature in which they live their lives. It really boils down to the infamous Shakespearean line fro mHamlet, " To be or not be, that is the question." Or as Alan Watts would suggest; you can either choose to play the game of life or not, welcome to the human race. Choices, like making moves on a chess board, lead you in a direction you willingly trust or unwillingly trust to which lead to chance to which will also lead you to certainty or uncertainty. MY DINNER WITH ANDRE reminds me of how much I yearn for the time when we weren't so dependent on our iphones because if you were to have an extended conversation of this magnitude today, I guarantee it would be interrupted by some distraction. As we're constantly surrounded in a world full of distractions. Also most conversations today involve some kind of visual component. People share so much of themselves, documented with video and photos endlessly scrolling every moment so you can share it, making it impossible to have a conversation with someone without the aid of an iphone. Today it makes me wonder, do people in telling their stories truly experience the moment or were they robbed of it, by reminding themselves they had to document it, to prove they experienced it rather than relying solely on memory altogether or is it simply to prove they want you to witness their existence? "But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process... ...that creates this boredom that we see in the world now... ...may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing... ...created by a world totalitarian government based on money... ...and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks... ...and it's not just a question of individual survival, Wally... ...but that somebody who's bored is asleep... ...and somebody who's asleep will not say no?"