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.