Wake up and smell the coffee
One of the most painful parts of “being” a film critic—of indulging in my personal passion and hobby—is that in many ways its merely a performance. I act like I understand what all these things mean, but I’m usually improvising and just trying to check my facts later. The performative nature of reality is one of the many philosophical observations made by two friends in My Dinner With Andre.
At one point, the titular ‘Andre’ describes a story about Roc, a man who had mental exercises like using only his left (weak) hand an entire day to “wake up” his consciousness. Dinner is so wonderful, for any viewer, because it has precisely this effect. It doesn’t let you “go through the motions” of viewership or critical thought, and you come out on the other side much like Wallace, the film’s heart—changed enough to see the world, and movies, with fresh eyes.
A plot summary is almost superfluous at this point; two old theater friends, Wallace the pragmatist and Andre the idealist, have dinner and discuss art and the meaning of life from their opposing viewpoints. There are a few extra little details—Wallace’s trip to and from the restaraunt and his voice-over narration—but 99.9% of the film is just them eating and talking.
Of course, if you’ve heard anything at all about the film, you know that. Most reviewers marvel at the film’s pacing, which is quick and easy, and they often attribute it to the “great performances” and wonderful script. However, it’s Louis Malle, the great French director, who really shines in My Dinner With Andre. He doesn’t simply handle the material “adequately,” he actually gives it life. I’ve read some critics who felt like the movie worked better on the page and would have been better suited as a novel or essay, but this view misses a good portion of the movie’s art, which is visual and highly cinematic.
Malle’s camera is both unobtrusive and in-your-face; paradoxical in the same way as its material, it tries to do two things at once. On the one hand it utilizes lengthy series of shots-reverse shots to suture the viewer into the conversation, but on the other he uses slow zooms, pans, and intriguing compositions to focus the viewer’s gaze on certain aspects of the mise-en-scene. In this textbook on good directions, every single shot is crucial. The most conspicuously stylish shots are always at moments of great import. The best example is Andre’s story about being buried alive. As he talks the camera first frames him and then slow zooms to within millimeters of his face. The largeness of his features in such generic environs creates an extremely uncanny atmosphere, and Malle uses effects like this throughout to create reflective distance for the viewer to explore.
I sometimes think that my secret profession is that I’m a private investigator, a detective. I always enjoy finding out about people. Even if they’re in absolute agony, I always find it very interesting.—Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre
Malle’s first film was Elevator to the Gallows—a French language Film Noir from 1954, and in a way the themes and style of Film Noir permeate My Dinner With Andre:
- Urban setting (specifically New York, the “Naked City”)
- Urbanity portrayed as bleak and alienating
- This alienation is connected to social class and money
- Chiarcurso lighting in the restaraunt
- Wallace’s self-description as “Private Investigator”
- The ambiguous ending and cynical view of human nature
The movie is like a metaphysical Film Noir—the two hour interrogation of a hippie by a square, a 120 minute heist movie with the ultimate MacGuffin: the meaning of life. Looking at the film through the lens of genre is helpful, because it frames the dialouge in terms of action, which is what it is. Usually in a movie things “happen” and that advances the “story,” but in My Dinner With Andre words “happen” and they advance the “theories.” In one of his numerous Noir commentaries Eddie Muller talks about how unconcerned Noir is with plot, focusing instead on the abberant psychologies of its characters. In Dinner they just dismiss with plot altogether and make the psychological investigation the plot, sans crime. Another fascinating thing about looking at the movie as Film Noir is that it clarifies the audience’s role in identification. Clearly we’re supposed to view the conversation through Wallace’s eyes, if not fully accept his ideological position; the title, opening narration, and final line all suggest this. It’s “my,” meaning both Wallace and the Audience, “dinner with Andre.” However, we’re not going to be talking back-and-forth at the screen, so by turning the film into a sort-of whodunit—or a whatsitmean—Malle gives the audience a more active role in the film’s proceedings.
“I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey where each of us seek the unknown, and we learn about it.”—Francis from The Darjeeling Limited
The Darjeeling Limited plays like Andre’s backstory. In that film, one of Wes Anderson’s best and most underrated works, three fabulously wealthy and disaffected brothers sojurn to India in search of something—anything. The oldest brother, Francis, is specifically leading them from one potential spiritual experience to another: a Sikh temple, constant drug use, and the acceptance of coincidence are all tried, to no avail. They just don’t seem to be able to feel anything for some reason. This radical alienation is contrasted with the spirtitually and emotionally rounded Indians we see: the train conductor, the stewardess, and the little boy’s whole village. They seem, at the very least, sure of themselves; the brothers are sure of nothing. As usual in Anderson’s oeuvre, class is the most egregios alienator, with numerous references to $3000 belts and nary a mention of employment.
Likewise, Dinner also draws this class division in terms of individual experience. Andre says
The main thing Wally, is that I think that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way.
in an attempt to criticize Wally’s electric blanket, but Andre is obviously quite comfortable and completely dissatisfied with his life. Wallace mentions that Andre picked the posh restaraunt and knows the menu like the back of his hand, Andre pays the check, and Andre is condescending towards the waiter. Wallace looks much more average in terms of appearance and dress, and he takes a subway to dinner with the rest of the average-Joes. It seems likely that the reason Wally enjoys his coffee and the other simple pleasures of life are because he has to work to survive—struggling through an “abrasive” world sensitizes you.
“We should both be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures.”—Alice from Eyes Wide Shut
There are several references to fidelity in My Dinner With Andre, and another useful text to look at the film through is Eyes Wide Shut—Kubrick’s masterpiece of memory, dreams, and reflections. That film is also about two wealthy people—one idealistic and desperate, the other pragmatic and stoic—working through their differences. However, Kubrick’s film is about a married couple and the question of how fidelity relates to contentment is explored more directly.
You know, in the sexual act there’s that moment of complete forgetting, which is so incredible. Then in the next moment you start to think about things: work on the play, what you’ve got to do tomorrow. I don’t know if this is true of you, but I think it must be quite common. The world comes in quite fast. Now that again may be because we’re afraid to stay in that place of forgetting, because that again is close to death. Like people who are afraid to go to sleep. In other words: you interrelate and you don’t know what the next moment will bring, and to not know what the next moment will bring brings you closer to a perception of death!
You see, that’s why I think that people have affairs…—Andre
Andre and Wallace both associate spiritual contentment with marital fidelity, and the relationships between each man and their wife is foregrounded in their psychologies.
I just kept thinking about the same things that I was always thinking about at home. Particularly about Chiquita. In fact, I thought about just about nothing but my marriage.—Andre
and the film’s last line
When I finally came in, Debby was home from work. And I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.—Wallace
The difference between their two marriages perfectly reflects their individual worldviews and neuroses. Andre loves the idea of his marriage, but he invites a monk to live with them disrupting their lives and runs off constantly on new adventures. While he’s gone he thinks “about nothing but [his] marriage,” but if he’s so invested in their relationship why isn’t she by his side? Wallace’s anecdotes about Debby frame their relationship as a source of genuine refuge for him, and the last line cements this. Their conversation over dinner may have been very upsetting, but he’s going to have help processing it. Andre never talks about what Chiquita thinks of his life or beliefs, and like Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut he seems completely unaware of the detached nature of his marriage.
“We’re just trying to experience something.”—Francis from The Darjeeling Limited
The ironic paradox at the heart of their conflicting worldviews is that Andre constantly complains that modern man requires more and more extreme situations to make him feel anything, yet he actually seeks out more and more extreme situations to feel something—he can’t appreciate the “little things.” His whole “spiritual” path is just a desperate attempt to fight off his own boredom, and yet his worldview revolves around his own superiority to the bored, mindless roboticism of his fellow man. Andre does not seem to have any sense of responsibility. In fact, he claims to sacramentally live every moment as a holy rite, but when Wallace talks about how he has to ignore starving people in Africa to be happy there’s no response from Andre. I was curious about what he thought about starving people in Africa, and how he reconciled his life of opulent luxury with his “spirituality.”
Overall, despite being told primarily from Wallace’s perspective, Dinner takes no clear sides. It bounces its ideas around, each person agreeing with a few things the other said, and both devolving into illogical contradiction occasionally. This is the beauty of the film; anyone could easily think that the movie respects their opinion more than the other person’s, just because the film is so NON-committal and ambiguous that its the perfect vehicle for our own unexplored beliefs and prejudices. My Dinner With Andre is entertaining as all get out, and if you can’t tell, full of complex philosophical ideas. However, like the dinner itself, it raises far more questions than answers.