Louis Malle has always been one of my favourite French film directors – and Lacombe Lucien (1974) probably my favourite French film, and one of the most morally subtle movies I’ve ever seen. Malle moved to the USA in 1977/78 where he produced seven films. One of these, My Dinner With André (1981), I saw for the first time last night.
This is a most unusual and striking movie. It is nothing more than a dinner conversation between the two actors, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, written by them and presumably based on their real conversations and experiences. In the first half of the film, we hear only Andre Gregory who talks about his spiritual experiences in experimental theatre and transcendentalism since ceasing activity as a New York theatre director in 1975. In the second half of the film, Wallace Shawn comes into his own, reacting to the enthusiasms of his friend in a way that could broadly be described as everyday empiricism challenging fashionable mysticism. But the conversation goes deeper than that, into what is, and is not, “performance” in life, and the relative merits of “being” and “doing”.
While they are eating quail in their New York restaurant – in fact filmed over two weeks in an empty hotel in Richmond, Virginia – both men, in many ways ill-assorted, confront their world views in a spirit of friendship and intelligence. The opening, when only Andre Gregory is speaking, leads one to expect a conversation of surreal non sequiturs, but gradually the whole thing is drawn together into a captivating discussion that touches on our lives with familiar philosophical relevance.
In our post-Beckettian, post-Pinterian world, we’re used to plays and films in which conversation is more about the avoidance of communication, cross-purposes, le non-dit, and the propagation of personal illusions and delusions rather than depressing, ineluctable truths. This 1981 movie is something different, a celebration of how two very dissimilar individuals can listen attentively, understand each other – to the extent that any articulate, cultivated person can understand another, and to the extent that language can effectively communicate feeling and conviction – and nevertheless take strong and partially incompatible stands, without animosity.
My favourite line is from Wallace Shawn: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
The fact that the whole premise of the movie develops directly out of a real conversation between the two actors, in real life, which is subsequently scripted – presumably to give it filmic shape – and the audacity of filming two men talking to each other over dinner for more than two hours, adds up to a unique thing of splendour. And it is a thing of splendour that works. We are drawn into that conversation as if we were occupying the third seat at the table.
Where does one find screenwriting of this calibre today?
I’ve been watching the impressive True Detective Series 2 recently, which is compulsive viewing, but when you scrutinise the structure and language and character interaction it all comes down to writing-school precepts and dreary clichés – sorry, Nic Pizzolatto (creator and writer) – despite the dazzling pyrotechnics. Placed side by side with a work like My Dinner With André – which it is right now in my head because I have seen them in juxtaposition – the latter shines out as a unique work of art, and a celebration of human understanding through the dialectic of conversation: listening, understanding, reacting, agreeing – or agreeing to disagree, in the full apprehension of what you are disagreeing with. In this respect, it is a kind of post-post-Existentialist affirmation that human communication is not a lost cause.
If, like me, you love chancing on neglected masterpieces, this is definitely one, by one of the brightest sparks in French cinema.
Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker
And don’t try a toffee or cream
If you seek perfection in sugar confection
Well there’s something new on the scene
The 2005 BBC series Help, about a psychotherapist played by Chris Langham and his multiple patients, all played by the brilliant Paul Whitehouse – described by Johnny Depp as “the finest actor of all time” – is one of the sharpest comedies ever produced on British television. The actor Chris Langham, of course, was jailed for 6 months in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Since his release, he has starred in a feature-length low-budget comedy called Black Pond. Help was not released on DVD, presumably because of Langham’s conviction, but was freely available for viewing on YouTube. It has now been snuffed out on YouTube as well, without a word of explanation. This means that one of the most stunning comedy acts of our times cannot be viewed, by hook or by crook – unless someone can tell me of a means of which I am unaware? This is a particularly nasty and inexplicable act of censorship to all appearances. Does anyone have any information about what is going on? And how to bring this wonderful series – a whacky precursor to Gabriel Byrne’s earnest HBO series about a shrink, In Treatment – back into the public realm?
Today’s homework is to compare and contrast this RATP Paris Metro announcement and Magritte’s famous painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. The text of the Metro announcement reads, in English: “The information on this screen is temporarily unavailable. Our agents are working to restore it as soon as possible.”
Fluide Glacial, the French monthly humour magazine (BD), is 40 years old this year. When I first came to Touraine in 1976, an impoverished young unemployed couple living in an old barn invited me to see their collection of cartoon books, and the first hilarious issues of Fluide Glacial had pride of place. I immediately became a regular subscriber, and learned most of my street French from this wonderful source, with its strip cartoons about the oafish Bidochon family, the grouchy Carmen Cru (a wizened old hag living in provincial France), or the gross Catholic nun, Soeur Marie-Thérèse de Batignolles with her inflatable Christ-on-the-Cross, and great artists like Edika.
The magazine began as an offshoot of Pilote, and was allegedly inspired by the American Mad magazine (which had great graphics, but was never outrageously funny, to Europeans at least), and stands alongside l’Echo des Savanes and the defunct Hara Kiri as part of that great 1970s’ wave of irreverence through a medium in which the French have always excelled. Today it’s just as droll, ribald, hare-brained and cheeky as ever, with a great stable of artists and writers.
When my sister Clare came to Paris many years ago, I took her to a street market and she stared at the huge variety of fruit, vegetables, cheese and seafood and said “Why don’t we have this at home?!” I always felt the same about Fluide Glacial. When Viz popped up, it was a close runner, but too puerile and relentlessly scatological. There is simply no British equivalent of Fluide Glacial. It’s surreal, quirky, silly, witty – a hoot. The more people tease me for liking it, the more I think I will… So there.
Happy birthday, Fluide Glacial!