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Film / My Dinner with Andre

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"Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés. I thought for a moment, and then answered, 'My Dinner With Andre.'"

Two men have dinner together in a fancy restaurant and discuss life.

No, really. That's the entire plot.

The 1981 movie was directed by Louis Malle and written by its stars. In it, Wallace (played by Wallace Shawn), a playwright and actor, goes to a restaurant to meet his old friend Andre (played by Andre Gregory), whom he hasn't seen for a while, and the film essentially follows their conversation over dinner throughout the course of the evening. It begins with Andre discussing his experiences since Wallace has last seen him, which mostly involves experimental theatre in various exotic locales, before the two men become involved in a friendly debate between Andre's spiritualistic and idealistic worldview and Wallace's down-to-earth and pragmatic humanism.

Okay, so maybe not the most exciting plot ever. But it's regarded as a cult classic among aficionados of independent cinema for its philosophical themes and minimalist presentation. It's also unique; whatever else can be said, there are not that many movies out there like it. And it's probably one of the most easy-to-summarise movies in existence.

Thanks to its cult status, references to the film occasionally show up in pop culture poking fun at its minimalistic presentation and extremely simple premise. Perhaps most famously, one episode of The Simpsons jokingly featured Martin Prince playing a My Dinner with Andre video game at his local arcade. Community also did an episode-length homage to the film where Abed tries to recreate the plot by inviting Jeff out to a fancy restaurant and having a philosophical conversation with him—the joke being that reenacting My Dinner with Andre is the closest that Abed (who relies on pop culture references to understand the world) ever gets to living in reality.

My Dinner with Andre provides examples of:

  • Affluent Ascetic: Andre. They’re in a very fancy restaurant but, unlike Wally who’s eating his meal, Andre barely touches his, being too absorbed in the conversation: his main course is taken away almost uneaten. At the end, Andre pays for their meal, showing that he’s much more affluent than Wally.
  • Artistic Licence Art: There's a reference to Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata in the opening narration that misquotes the film. Wallace tells us that Andre quoted Ingrid Bergman's character saying "I could always live in my art, but never in my life." The actual line from the film was "Only through music did I get a chance to reveal my emotions. Sometimes when I lie awake at night, I wonder whether I've lived at all."
  • As Himself: Played with; although the characters are named after the actors who play them, and some of the events they describe apparently happened, both Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory have denied that they are playing themselves entirely. In an interview with Roger Ebert, they've stated that, were they to remake the movie, they'd swap roles to prove the point. In another interview, with Noah Baumbach, Shawn said "I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear."
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: The movie initially went unrated in the US because the filmmakers decided not to submit it to the MPAA. It's not a children's film, but there isn't anything unsuitable for kids either. The movie was eventually rated PG, so maybe the distributors were worried that that might mislead audiences expecting more action.
  • Based on a True Story: Although As Himself may not exactly apply (see above), apparently the events the two discuss are based on real events.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with Wally traveling to and from the dinner. Tellingly, Wally on the way there is miserable and feeling old, reminiscing about riding around in taxis when he was a boy and thinking about money instead of art and life. The end has him springing for a taxi, getting nostalgic and thinking about art and life.
  • Broken Ace: Andre, at least from Wally's perspective as the conversation goes on - He's gone to many exotic locales and had tons of interesting, artistic, and spiritual experiences with many different and interesting people... but he's also deeply depressed, grown increasingly disgusted with the modern world, is clearly more than a little traumatized by both the death of his mother and even some of his improv undertakings, and sees a fascistic bent in just about everything, including himself. Wally in particular is utterly confused by how Andre, after talking about all the fascinating things he's done, laments that he feels everything he's done is horrific.
  • Broken Pedestal: One of the reasons Wally didn't want to meet Andre. He'd heard Andre had been acting strangely. His fears are confirmed.
  • Brown Note: Andre describes that he had a flag made with a Tibetan swastikanote  on it that he intended to take with him to India, for the purpose of charging it with totemic energy in India that he could bring home with him. However, the flag allegedly caused one of his friends - hitherto unaware of the origins of the flag - to come to his home and tell him it was evil, and that it made his wife vomit in terror when she asked him to unfurl it at a party. In the end, he didn't take the flag to India and instead gave it to a friend in Paris who ritually burned it.
  • Building of Adventure: There isn't much of an adventure going on, but most of the movie takes place in the restaurant.
  • Character Development: Realistically Downplayed, as there is little happening in the film other than the conversation itself. However, the ending note of the dialogue shows Andre at his probably most depressed ever, and the epilogue subtly demonstrates that Wally, at least for the time being, has reconnected somewhat with the real world around him.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Wallace thinks Andre might be a mild example of this.
  • The Corruptible: Andre notes that the ascetic Japanese monk wasn't immune to Western corruption.
    Andre: You know, he started wearing these elegant Gucci shoes under his white monk's robes. He was eating huge amounts of food. I mean, he ate twice as much as Nicolas ate, you know? This tiny little Buddhist when I first met him, you know... was eating a little bowl of milk, hot milk with rice... was now eating huge beef! It was just very strange.
  • Crack Pairing: Invoked by Wally, who states with disgust that people will do this at parties, such as "What if Richard Nixon met Frank Sinatra?"
  • The Danza: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing characters with those exact names. invoked
  • Death by Materialism: One of the running themes of the film. Andre summarizes with a story about Lady Hatfield.
    Andre: Don't you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable, and I like to be comfortable, too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquillity. I mean, my mother knew a woman, Lady Hatfield, who was one of the richest women in the world, and she died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. I mean, she just liked chicken, Wally, and that was all she would eat, and actually, her body was starving, but she didn't know it 'cause she was quite happy eating her chicken, and so, she finally died. See, I honestly believe that we're all like Lady Hatfield now, we're having a lovely, comfortable time with our electric blankets and our chicken, and meanwhile we're starving because we're so cut off from contact with reality that we're not getting any real sustenance... 'cause we don't see the world. We don't see ourselves. We don't see how our actions affect other people.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Andre complains that he was miserable, while almost everyone was commenting on how great he looked.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Wally is in a deep funk, having realized he's become money-obsessed and stuck in a rut. Andre has been traveling the world trying to find some inspiration, and more or less failing. Both have become frustrated at not being able to find it.
  • Energetic and Soft-Spoken Duo: Andre definitely talks a lot more than Wally, though that changes towards the end of the film when Wally calls out Andre's worldview.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Wally's complaining about his hectic day and Andre's talking about his experiments immediately lets you know exactly what kind of men they are. As the screenplay's publisher's note states:
    Andre Gregory is an intense, highly experimental theater director and playwright in search of life's meanings and spiritual revelations. His friend, Wally Shawn, is an actor and playwright living in New York who is more preoccupied with the search for his next meal.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's about a guy... who has dinner with Andre.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: As one might expect, since it takes place over the course of a single dinner.
  • Fun with Homophones: Wally is initially confused by Andre telling him that ROC met a faun, thinking he said "fawn".
  • Genre-Busting: Okay, so what genre would you say this is?
  • The Ghost: Pretty much everyone mentioned by Wallace and Andre. The most we ever get is a photograph of a Polish woman Andre worked with. Debbie and Chiquita in particular are probably the most frequently mentioned of the unseen cast (Wally's girlfriend and Andre's wife, respectively).
  • Godwin's Law: No matter what Andre talks about he seems to find a way to compare it to fascism, Nazism, Hitler, concentration camps, etc. Invoked more subtly in how when Wally finally starts pushing back against Andre's rhetoric he references the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who quite infamously was also a nazi.
  • Government Conspiracy: Andre and his friends feel like they're living in "an Orwellian nightmare."
    Andre: (exploding) Okay! Yes! We’re bored! We’re all bored now! But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks. And it’s not just a question of individual survival, Wally, but that somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say “no”.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: A mild variation. After some heavy statements by Andre, the waiter comes around to ask them if they want dessert. Andre just asks for an espresso, while Wally, shaken, says he wants one too, but to make his an amaretto.
  • Irony: Wally finds it a bit silly that Andre would participate in a form of experimental theater in which actors play themselves and don't really do anything. He also clarifies, however, that even two people doing arbitrary things such as conversing or silently drinking tea still counts as "doing" something.
  • Last-Name Basis: Andre and Wally's friend who worked in paratheatrical experiments, Jerzy Grotowski, is always referred to as "Grotowski".note 
  • Le Film Artistique: They're not seen, but Andre's descriptions of his forays into experimental theatre qualify. For example, Andre said he'd wanted to use a real decapitated head for his production of The Bacchae, but the lead actress absolutely refused to carry around a real head and hand it around the audience. The movie itself is frequently discussed as an example of this trope, but compared to the stereotypically incomprehensible and pretentiously aloof works that this trope spoofs, it's actually fairly straightforward and simple to understand, and while the conversation the two men engage in touches on some pretty high-falutin' concepts, they're presented in a fairly accessible way for the audience, as you would expect from two friends conversing over dinner.
  • Magic Versus Science:
    • Discussed by Andre and Wally. During their dinner conversation, Andre has extolled the virtues of a spiritual and emotional awakening from his experiences influencing the way he lives his life. Wally has taken these stories on board, and even admits that some small unconscious part of him entertains the idea of wishful thinking, but that he consciously lives his life according to reason and evidence. An example of a fortune cookie is brought up where Wally admits he might be influenced by it on some level, though he knows it can't possibly have been made in a factory somewhere with him in mind. Wally does agree with Andre that science hasn't necessarily made things better.
    • ROC is mentioned as someone who was a Scottish scientist who stopped practicing his researchnote  and started talking to fauns and the god Pan.
  • Manly Tears: Wallace recalls that a friend found Andre sobbing uncontrollably after seeing Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata when a character's line hit too closely to him: "I could always live in my art but never in my life." Sometimes when Andre laughs during the film, it sounds like barely controlled crying.
  • Minimalism: Nearly the entire film is two men engaging in dinner conversation. No plot, no special effects, no ornate costuming or makeup.
  • Minimalist Cast: There are only really two characters in this thing. However, Louis Malle takes great pains to remind the audience that the duo are in a restaurant, with the mildly disapproving waiter, and the laughter of a female couple on occasion in the background. The intent is to make sure the audience knows that they are just one of many overhearing this conversation— and this is one of many conversations they happen to be overhearing.
  • Mushroom Samba: Andre says he got one from pure boredom while at a Christmas Eve mass.
    Andre: When all of a sudden, a huge creature appeared, looking at the congregation! It was about, I'd say, six foot eight, something like that, you know, and it was half bull, half man, its skin was blue, it had violets growing out of its eyelids and poppies growing out of its toenails, and it just stood there for the whole mass. I mean, I could not make that creature disappear. You know, I thought: "Oh, well, you know, I'm just seeing this because I'm bored," you know. I could not make that creature go away. Okay, now: I didn't talk with people about it, because they'd think I was weird. But I felt that this creature was somehow coming to comfort me. That somehow he was appearing to say: "Well! You may feel low, and you might not be able to create a play right now. But look what can come to you, on Christmas eve! Hang on, old friend! I may seem weird to you, but on these weird voyages, weird creatures appear! It's part of the journey. You're okay! Hang in there!"
  • No Antagonist: The closest the film gets is a philosophical disagreement between friends, and they're quite civil about it. The film also doesn't really take sides, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusion about whether they agree more with Wallace or Andre in their debate.
  • No Ending: Or rather, nothing but the ending: the argument simply ends without any real resolution or one side triumphing; Wallace and Andre merely finish their meal and say their goodbyes.
  • No Plot? No Problem!: The basic plot is pretty much just two guys sitting in a restaurant talking.
  • Not So Above It All: Wally and Andre laugh loudly at a dish that Andre translates as "seven swimming shrimp". The waiter steps in to demand if they've made their selection, as if to say "cut it out".
  • Only Known by Initials: Andre brings up a scientist named "Rock"; he is actually referring to "ROC", or Robert Ogilvie Crombie. He doubles as a Posthumous Character in that he'd passed away in 1975.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The film ends with Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: A reasonable amount of "uh"s and pauses to eat their food.
  • Real Time: The movie is almost entirely devoted to the dinner, with only two scenes depicting Wallace arriving for dinner and going home in a taxi breaking this. Viewers are often surprised that the film took a few months to shoot, despite being only one location in a in-universe two hour time frame.
  • Sad Clown: Andre seems chipper, but one of the running themes of the film is about wearing a mask. When Wally first greets Andre, "You look great!", Andre cheerfully replies, "I feel terrible!" Andre then shows a picture of himself during his experiences in Poland, and he looks desperately unhappy, despite being "reborn" there. He then notes that a picture he had of Chiquita which he thought looked sexy now looked, with his more experienced eyes, as very sad. Later, Andre notes that he's more open with his emotions— when he's annoyed by his family, he tells them they're annoying him (to their shock).
  • Shout-Out:
    • To The Little Prince, although Andre really rags on it, even comparing it to Nazism. He winds up discussing many of the same themes explored in the book as the night goes on, however, including feelings of isolation, questions about love, connections between people, and exploration vs. isolation/introspection.
    • Andre talks about directing Bacchae, while Wally talks about having played the cat on a stage adaptation of The Master and Margarita.
  • Slice of Life: Played With. What's shown on-screen is little more than a casual two-hour conversation in a restaurant. However, the weird stories Andre tells could themselves make the plots of entire movies.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism:
    • Given the very grounded and unbiased way the movie treats the characters and their conversation during the dinner, the movie is squarely in the middle of the scale, slightly leaning towards idealism thanks to both characters getting along pretty well with each other despite their disagreements, and Wally having seemingly found a new insight on life after talking to Andre.
    • Andre contrasts Gunnar Björnstrand and Findhorn Commune. While both agree that the world is descending into a materialistic "Orwellian nightmare", Andre notes Björnstrand thinks there's no hope for the world, while the people at Findhorn think that there is, by creating "oases" of human expression and thought where people can escape modern life.
  • Speech-Centric Work: A particularly well-known example; the plot consists entirely of two men having a conversation over dinner, and nothing else.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Wally and Andre Shoot Ibsen.
    • Vanya on 42nd Street was Malle's last film, co-produced with Andre Gregory and starred Wallace Shawn.
  • Take That Me: After talking about all of his world travels and his metaphysical encounter groups, Andre attacks his own flightiness, snarking, "Who did I think I was, you know? I mean, that's the story of some kind of spoiled princess, you know. Who did I think I was, the Shah of Iran?"
  • Talking Heads: The modern Trope Codifier.
  • Title Drop: The very last words of dialog:
    I treated myself to a taxi. I rode home through the city streets. There wasn't a street, there wasn't a building, that wasn't connected to some memory in my mind. There, I was buying a suit with my father. There, I was having an ice cream soda after school. And when I finally came in, Debbie was home from work, and I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.
  • The Tropeless Tale: Obviously, this page proves there are tropes in the film. But as Roger Ebert notes in the page quote, My Dinner With Andre defies far more tropes than it embraces.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Wally vents at Andre during the last third of the film.

"I mean, you know, people hold on to these images of father, mother, husband, wife... again for the same reason... 'cause they seem to provide some firm ground. But there's no wife there. What does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands... and then suddenly there's this huge man lifting you off the ground... and then he's gone. Where's that son?"