My Dinner With André A movie about nothing
Two nights ago I watched the famous “My Dinner with André” for the second time and, with at least two viewings under my belt, I feel confident to write down some thoughts. Just a fair warning, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie, or don’t care about seeing it, or at least don’t care about knowing what happens in it. So, spoiler alert. I’m not 100% sure I really can spoil the movie, but I could taint your first viewing. Better that you see it at least once and decide what you think before you read.
If you just come baldly out and say it, “My Dinner with André” is a movie about two guys, who had not seen each other in years, having a conversation together over dinner. The movie begins with one of them, Wallace, taking the subway to the restaurant. It ends with Wallace taking the taxi home. And the subject of the movie is their meal and their conversation during the meal.
There is no catch, there is no twist.
There is a denouement, but it is the climax of the conversation, which turns gradually into a polite argument (more on that later).
This either sounds tremendously boring to you or…well, okay the way I introduced it, it just sounds tremendously boring. This is basically a “movie about nothing.”
Of course, you know where I’m going with that phrase. There is a famous TV show that boasts that it is about nothing, and it’s among the most interesting and entertaining shows on television. And much of what lends the show entertainment is the conversations that occur between the characters, far more than the situations themselves. I would pay admission, repeatedly, to hear a feature length conversation between George Kastanza and Jerry Seinfeld, and be certain I would get my money’s worth. And, of course, it wasn’t really “about nothing” in the most obvious usage of that phrase.
There is a lot in common between Seinfeld and “My Dinner with André.” But, “My Dinner with André” is not a comedy. It has funny moments, but they occur about as often as funny moments occur in any good conversation, and bits of the conversation are, at least on the surface, very serious.
You will, depending upon your disposition, quite possibly find the first half of the movie highly infuriating. That’s okay. At least, I think it’s okay, because that is how I responded. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Wallace and André meet for dinner and Wallace (played by Wallace Shawn, who you probably know as Vizzini the Sicilian from The Princess Bride) is dreading the meeting. Long story short, he has a hard enough life without dealing with André, who has acquired a reputation for being a little bit, well, weird. He resolves to get through the dinner with polite nothings. “Oh, that’s interesting, tell me more.” “Oh really? What was that like?” “Wow, how interesting!” That sort of thing.
For this reason, the first half of the meal and the movie consists of André talking almost non-stop. It starts with the story of a bizarre actors’ workshop André conducted in Poland. (André is a theatre director.) But it quickly progresses into André describing the finer points of something that straddles something between politics and religion. For forty-five minutes we hear André’s interesting but increasingly strange viewpoint as it goes from hipster oddness to kookiness to apocalypse. For forty-five minutes, Wallace maintains his facade of polite conversation tricks that allow him to get through the meeting politely without actually engaging anything André says except in the most cursory form.
Here, the first time I viewed the movie, I paused it and went to the restroom. I was, to be honest, a little frustrated. André’s worldview was interesting, no doubt, but listening to him go on about it felt about the same as listening to anyone drone on about their religion for forty-five minutes. Wallace feels the same way, but his growing frustration is played very subtly, so I missed it the first time. I did not hold out hope for the rest of the movie.
Liswamirë asked me what I thought about it at this point as well, and, like Wallace, I gave an answer somewhat like, “It’s okay. It’s interesting. I guess. André is getting on my nerves.”
At almost exactly that moment (after I resumed the movie), as if on a cue, Wallace’s disinterested, polite facade starts to break down. Don’t misunderstand me, the conversation remains polite and civil through out the entire movie. (And I wouldn’t want it any other way. I can listen to two morons scream at each other for free, thank you. Ninety-percent of television seems to have decided this is the ‘real’ mode of communication, but I digress.)
Wallace decides he has to say something, and all the thoughts he’s been really having through the whole movie (and that the audience has been having, or, at least, that I have been having) come out as well.
Wallace starts embarrassed. The line goes something like: “Do you want to know what I think about that? What I really, really in my mind think about that? I can tell you what I think.” He is, understandably, nervous about telling this old friend what he really thinks of this stuff. It’s a scary thing telling a friend that he sounds like a lunatic, and finding a way to do it politely.
Here, the movie picks up, as André’s monologue ends and the conversation actually begins. Wallace is hardly a starched-shirt conservative, but he gets the unenviable task of defending bits and pieces of the status quo against André.
I’ll stop with the synopsis here. I don’t want to delve into what Wallace says, what André says. I’d rather take a step further back.
One thing I’ve come to despise lately are movies and books and TV shows and what not where you are not allowed to have an opinion on the characters. Or, rather, the story hinges on you not having an opinion on the characters. If you decide the wise-cracking cop is actually a jack-ass, you have not gained any insight into his character or his actions. You’ve just ruined the movie. If you decide the strong-independent single female lawyer is actually a drama queen, you have ruined all chance of enjoyment of the show. Because to the writers and directors and writers, these traits are not part of the characters. The characters are delivery vehicles for smart-aleck quips as they are carted, inanimate, from one scene to the next.
This movie isn’t like that. (Fair statement, few good movies are.) They thought through André and Wallace. I said there is no twist. I lied, there is one, right at the end. I won’t spoil it, though it is beautifully done, and if you are really observant, you will see it coming. Or more likely (and like me) you will appreciate all the clues you get during the movie that it is coming during your second viewing.
I digress. They thought through the two main characters. Wallace is blind to some pretty important stuff going on in his life, but the audience gets a hint if they read between the lines of his introduction at movie start. And André. Well, I am not certain about this, but on viewing two, I picked up on a few things that led me to believe that at least some of André’s kookier ideas are exaggerated. Even if I’m wrong, the characters stand up to scrutiny. I don’t feel like I am reading past the characters and into the writers.
There’s a lot more I want to say. About the reactions of the wait staff at the restaurant (quiet and subtly done, but priceless), about Wallace’s unseen girlfriend and their relationship, about André’s apparent thoughts on the world. But this is around 1400 words long.
Maybe in a second post later, after I have watched it a third time?
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