Directed by Louis Malle
Wally and Andre (Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory) don’t carry on a dialogue throughout their hour and a half or so long dinner as much as they exchange monologues. The film presents the events of the story as an evolving conversation, and while they do build on what the other says, conveying opposite view points of life, they sometimes drift off into tangents that sound good phonetically and might read well on paper but are very far off from the conversation they’re having. Or maybe they’re right on the nose, but this conversation was nothing like any I’ve ever had. It plays like an organized debate, with opening and closing statements and rebuttals throughout.
It’s an enlightening conversation towards the end, to be sure. I found myself pulled into Andre’s philosophical sphere, but then when Wally called him out on a few occasions I began leaning towards team Wally. Maybe that’s just the power of movies and narrative stories. We’re inclined to believe in the message of the film, and we might not critique what is being said unless a character within the text does so for us. And even that criticism is a part of the whole, meaning that we are still buying into the presentation before us.
But the long monologues of My Dinner with Andre force you to really listen to one side and consider it. There isn’t an immediate counterpoint to keep you centered, only briefly detouring this way and that. Instead we are dipped into one perspective, left to simmer, and then we’re dipped in another. The result is a movie that really makes you think about what the characters are discussing and, because of the nature of their conversation, and about life in general.
We begin and end with Wally. He lives in New York and is on his way, through various forms of transportation, to a dinner with an old colleague. Through voice over we learn that Wally is not looking forward to this dinner one bit. We similarly end with Wally and his voice over, but in the middle the story is only what is said out loud between the two main characters.
Wally is a bit scruffy, probably to play up his every man quality. Andre is quite the opposite. He wears a sweater that is quite in fashion now but still sticks out as a little upper class-ish. His hair is combed neatly while Wally’s is scruffy (think Woody Allen in the early 70s), and he goes on and on about his exotic explorations while Wally suffers silently, and so do we.
I was very put off by Andre’s stories, but I’m fairly certain Wally really was too. Andre rambles on and on, though occasionally encouraged to continue by Wally more because Wally has nothing he wants to say and thinks Andre’s story will allow him to avoid participating in the conversation.
Andre has a family, but he has also travelled all over the world, and he has picked up a variety of new ideas. His story sounds like one we’ve all likely heard from a friend or two who lived abroad long enough to think they are a different person but no long enough to realize that life there is probably not much different than it is here (wherever that is).
Eventually Andre’s story leads to the recounting of a ceremony in which he was nearly buried alive (by design). He explains that after this moment he felt truly alive, and this is when Wally becomes more involved in the conversation. Andre’s point is that people in western civilization are robots. We are programmed to think a certain way, one that lacks critical thought, and we are so insulated from death that we are just as insulated from life.
Andre advocates for living life on the edge. His example is the use of electric blankets. It removes us from the familiarity with what it means to be cold, and thus we are less empathetic to people who have to endure the cold.
He makes a good point, here, but then Wally argues that he likes his electric blanket and that it’s not a bad thing to enjoy certain amenities, particularly since life is hard enough as it is.
They continue a back and forth, though again with long monologues at a time, and at the end they don’t come to any kind of agreement, but they seem to respect the other’s opinion. And that’s how it should be. The movie lets you decide for yourself who you agree with or if you’re somewhere in between.
In the director’s commentary for Slacker (1991), Richard Linklater discussed the ways he shot the many long monologues of the film to make the audience decide and think for themselves. The film has no single protagonist, instead following different people for anywhere from 3-10 or so minutes at a time. In some of these encounters, one character speaks of his or her life philosophy, at least one part of it, to a willing listener. These ‘conversations’ are mostly one sided, and the point, as Linklater said, is for the audience to decide how they feel about the person talking or about their story. Many of their stories are wild, filled with conspiracy theories or just plain peculiar. But it’s clear that these are characters with a strong viewpoint, and you can choose not to accept their viewpoint or to appreciate it as a reflection of this person’s created persona. The point of the film would seem to be the beauty inherent in our differences, and the many monologues aren’t meant to stand alone. Instead they are pieces of the whole, and we’re meant to admire our collective spirit, seen through these quick, sharp scenes of creative people with wild imaginations.
Linklater said, of one scene, that he told the person listening to one man’s conspiracy theories not to react to the story. He is meant to be a blank canvas into which the audience can insert themselves.
So My Dinner with Andre seems to play out the same way. We get a voice over from Wally in the end, but he gives away nothing as to his feelings about what Andre had to story. All we know is that Wally is busy thinking about their converastion long after it ended. It didn’t matter what they talked about as much as the fact that they talked at all. They shared a conversation and ideas that didn’t have to be shared and often aren’t shared let alone even acknowledged. As they agreed, people often don’t let themselves feel certain emotions or accept that other people might be as clueless as they feel. In other words we have this shared soul, but we’re denying it in some ways. Their differences in opinion come down to how best to embrace that soul, but they agree that it’s there.