“Obviously something terrible had happened to Andre,” Wallace Shawn concludes after hearing reports about an old friend’s strange behavior toward the beginning of My Dinner With Andre. Once an acclaimed director of experimental theater, Andre Gregory spent years globetrotting and returned a changed man, someone who might go on about talking to the trees, or be seen weeping on street corners. As the film opens, Shawn has reluctantly agreed to catch up with him over dinner. Joining him at an upscale, just slightly forbidding restaurant, Shawn finds Gregory relentlessly upbeat, at least on the surface, and listens to his tales of super-fringe acting workshops, travels in the Sahara, a piece of performance art that involved being buried alive, and other strange adventures. After listening politely, Shawn replies.
And that, in short, is My Dinner With Andre, an arthouse hit in 1981 built around a conversation between old friends and collaborators playing themselves, directed with dining-room intimacy by Louis Malle. Their talk feels as unforced as it is intense, but even that’s an illusion piled on top of an illusion. The film keeps returning to questions about the nature of reality and the function of performance, whether in theater or in everyday life. Shawn and Gregory scripted the piece together, drawing from their own experiences but constructing characters out of them. (In a bonus feature interview with filmmaker Noah Baumbach, Shawn talks about giving his character all the traits he wanted to purge from his own personality.) Sometimes Malle doesn’t even bother with artful framing; at other times, he creates telling compositions with mirrors behind his two leads, as the conversation starts to fold in on itself.
But even without the meta touches, their conversation would remain enthralling. Gregory describes ever-more-outré experiences in fascinating detail, without ever quite persuading Shawn that he hasn’t lost his mind. Shawn’s counterpoint—a blustery defense of scientific certainty and everyday comforts like coffee and a good book—never finds traction either, and toward the end, both men have started to slide into darkness. Their encounter ends and begins with smiles, but both men leave clearly challenged by what’s been said over three courses and a coffee. It’s easy for viewers to share their feelings.
Key features: Baumbach talks in turn to a still-impish Gregory and a frank Shawn. Shawn interviews the late Malle in a 1982 BBC program.