Beyond Words - Old Joy and My Dinner With Andre
by Adam Nayman
In one of his Great Movies essays, Roger Ebert says that My Dinner with André was the first title that came to mind when a friend asked him if he could name a film that was entirely devoid of clichés. It’s an apt enough observation, except for the fact that at this point, thirty years after helping to usher in the American indie boom by proving that two characters trading dialogue in close-up could be the stuff of both compelling drama and robust per-screen grosses, Louis Malle’s film has, by no fault of its own, become a cliché: the celluloid gabfests against which all others are measured. Not to mention the subject of thirty years’ worth of variably executed parodies, from Andy Kaufman’s sweet short feature My Breakfast with Blassie, in which the late comedian took the Wallace Shawn role opposite pro wrestling legend “Classy” Fred Blassie as a roughneck version of André Gregory) to the recent Community episode “Critical Film Studies,” a well-played piece of pop culture riffage that has itself become a sort of conversation piece (Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent appraisal in Salon can be found here).
My Dinner with André is famous enough, in fact, that even those who haven’t seen it have some idea of its contents: a pair of old friends (Shawn and Gregory, who wrote the script and named the characters after themselves) who haven’t spoken in a long time play catch up over the course of a single evening in a New York City restaurant. This simple description of course belies the complexity of their exchange, which takes up ninety percent of the film’s running time.
Sitting down to watch the film again, I remembered the basic rhythm, with André dominating the first two-thirds of the movie with stories of globe-hopping, mind-expanding adventures, leading to Wally’s rebuttals in the name of less esoteric pursuits. The metaphysical schism is obvious, with André’s aggressive search for meaning balanced against Wally’s shrugging acceptance of a larger cosmic mystery. What I’d forgotten—and what seems to me to be considerably more interesting—is the way that André’s gregariousness, which drives the conversation and by extension, the film, is consistently offset by a sense of melancholy. In between tales of communing with trees and being buried alive, he makes frequent mention of his sadness following the death of his mother, adding that his friends have thus far proved incapable of broaching the subject in any sort of honest way. “We can’t be direct,” sighs Andre, “and so we end up saying the weirdest things.”
My Dinner with André is not a film that lacks for potential thesis statements, but for me, that’s the key line of the script, a precise bit of self-diagnosis that accounts both for André’s relentless unburdening of his experiences and also why Wally, for all his seeming eagerness to serve as a human sounding board (“tell me more”) doesn’t say anything about having missed his friend in the time since their last meeting. We know from the start that he’s been dreading seeing André, a man he’d “been avoiding literally for years” as he explains via voice-over. But even as the erosion of Wally’s doubts is suggested via a series of rapt reaction shots, he never comes clean about his avoidance. When André mentions that he’d tried calling him up upon his return from teaching an experimental theater workshop in Poland, Wally stammers, “I think I was out of town.” Malle’s camera, always intimate but never obtrusive, catches both men’s eyes registering the lie in the space of a single cut back to André, who pauses only ever so slightly before continuing his story.
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