(director: Louis Malle; screenwriters: Wallace Shawn/ Andre Gregory; cinematographer: Jeri Sopanen; editor: Suzanne Baron; cast: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Jean Lenauer (waiter), Roy Butler (bartender); Runtime: 110; Andre Company; 1981)

“A couple of New York intellectuals get together for dinner and have a confessional chat about their life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A couple of New York intellectuals get together for dinner and have a confessional chat about their life. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play themselves, in Louis Malle’s two-character drama, displaying wit, humor and charm. What is real is their shining personalities. Their opinions stated are probably not that far from their actual personalities. After all, they wrote what they said. What results is a dinner conversation that at times seems bewitching and at other times seems to be egotistical twaddle. The overall effect is that the film seemed different, as one watched these two eat roast quail in an upscale restaurant and psychoanalyze each other between slurping over their potato soup. The meal corresponded in time with the film’s story. It proved to be a compelling venture in storytelling, if nothing else.

The unsuccessful playwright and now struggling actor, Wallace Shawn, is on his way to have dinner with “a man” he says: “I’d been avoiding, literally, for a matter of years.” The man is Andre Gregory, a successful New York theater director, the one who put on Wally’s first play, but who had since vanished from the theater scene. He traveled to Tibet, India, Poland, Israel, the Sahara, and the mystical Findhorn commune in Scotland. Some people in the theater thought he cracked up and some have even seen him talking to trees. Recently a friend of Wally’s had come across Andre in Manhattan, leaning against a building and weeping. Andre had just come from Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” and was moved by Ingrid Bergman saying: “I could always live in my art, but not in my life.”

The pragmatic Wally decides he will try and make the best of this dinner engagement by asking questions, but that the director shouldn’t expect him to help with his emotional problems. He has problems of his own. He was born and lived as a child on the exclusive Upper East Side (Wally’s dad was a former editor of the New Yorker) and his only thoughts then were about art and culture, but now that he is an artist all he thinks about is money. His struggle is to pay the bills and to jump-start his career.

Andre surprises him with his graciousness and ease, willing to tell him about what he was doing when he ran away from the theater. As the two engage in a genial disagreement about what life means but showing most of all that they are both good listeners, they challenge the audience to carefully listen to a movie more than to watch it.

Andre for most of the film does the talking, telling about being invited to Poland by Grotowski and participating in burial rituals that make him connected to everything, including death. Wally tells of playing a cat on the stage and how some of the other actors who actually liked him, made negative remarks of how he won’t be able to perform properly in that costume. Wally believes they said this because it is difficult to express feelings directly to people. Andre counters, that we can’t be direct so we end up saying the weirdest things.

Andre talks about his trip to Findhorn and how those there could talk to insects and work out deals where the insects could stay away from their crops. That they grew the largest cauliflowers in the world. In Tibet he watched as Tibetans would have tea in silence, sitting for hours and finding no need to talk if they had nothing to say. He talks about Martin Buber, a Hasidic, who told how pray liberates the spirits that enchain one–everything in life should be a pray to free us from our slavery.

The most bedeviling story told was the one offering the reason Andre felt he couldn’t escape from New York, even if he wanted to: relating how someone amusingly told him that New Yorkers built the prison they are in and are now the guards of that prison, and are unable anymore to just leave.

Just as the film seemed to favor the independently wealthy, intellectual elitist Andre’s flight-fulness and ability to travel anywhere in the world, to lead a life with no purpose by living for the moment, it suddenly turns and favors the struggling playwright, who is seeking a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. Wally says that he enjoys being with his girlfriend, I enjoy waking up to a cold cup of coffee leftover from the night before, and am pleased when there isn’t a dead cockroach in it. We don’t have to travel to some exotic place to find reality, it is right here.

Andre then seems to apologize for his spiritual quest saying he became too mechanical in his responses to life, living only for the theater, that he needed to find a quiet in him where he could feel real things again. He had to travel to find that spot inside himself. He also goes on to say, that if you can’t react honestly to people–there is a deadness. That this journey was a training program for him to be a human being.

The dinner seemed to end on an apology for both to go back to their comfortable lifestyles having been momentarily exhilarated by the richness of the meal, the cheer of communicating their thoughts, and by the many provoking subjects broached. These two seemed like two smug but likable New York intellectuals, who have a good rap going for them. I thought how riveting the conversation was and how it all ended up being so mundane– titillating but irrelevant. The only thing left savoring was the delicious mood they set.

Andre’s quest is a safe one, where he still doesn’t have to let go of his wealth and ego; and, Wally’s pragmatism is a knee-jerk defense of his ego. But for the viewer any one of the numerous topics brought into the conversation, could be a stimulant for further contemplation. I thought the energy and the absurdity of the film was the intangible that made it an interesting watch; it was the something that made this film a special treat, no matter its seemingly bourgeois idealism advocated.

Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with Andre (1981)

REVIEWED ON 2/17/2000     GRADE: A-