My Dinner with Andre (United States, 1981)

February 06, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
My Dinner with Andre Poster

Some movies, no matter how highly regarded, can lose at least some of their luster over the passage of time. When My Dinner with Andre was released in the fall of 1981, it was a critical sensation, garnering raves from all corners including accolades from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (both of whom named it among their Top 10 films of the 1980s). The years haven’t necessarily been kind to it, however. When it first arrived in theaters, the French New Wave was still firmly anchored in the minds of many art-house viewers. The freshness of that aesthetic, which informs My Dinner with Andre, has grown stale with the passage of decades and there are times when it’s hard to view this film as more than a curiosity of another age.

Okay, I’ll admit it – there were times when, while I watching My Dinner with Andre, I found myself becoming bored. Not “eyes glazed over” bored, but restless. Although the movie works as a study in acting, shot selection, and editing, it has lost its edge in terms of telling a story. So much of the film’s relevance is tied to the era in which it was produced. Although aspects of the culture clash – between activists who believe technology has created a robot society and those who prefer to simply live their lives day-to-day without drama – remain as relevant today as ever, the anecdotes used to express this are dated. Andre Gregory’s adventures in Poland, the Sahara, and Findhorn (Scotland) are as believable as Paul Bunyan’s Tall Tales and his philosophy is naïve and simplistic.

Although the movie is narrated by Wallace Shawn (who would be immortalized six years later as Vizzini in The Princess Bride), he has considerably less dialogue than the title character. Yet, while Gregory does a lion’s share of the talking, director Louis Malle maintains the fiction that this is from Shawn’s perspective. He is the only one we see outside the restaurant (during the prologue and epilogue). The background is simple: Shawn informs us in a voiceover that he is going to have dinner with an old friend and colleague, Gregory, who has become something of a recluse in recent years. 95% of the film focuses on their dinner conversation with Gregory regaling Shawn with tales of his years away from the theater, then the two engaging in a debate over rationality vs. mysticism in criticizing modern society. The movie ends with them parting as friends.

One of the most amazing things about My Dinner with Andre is how it manages to capture the seemingly off-the-cuff approach one might normally associate with improv – sort of the thing Mike Leigh was famous for. However, every word was scripted and the two actors never deviated from what they wrote. The improvisational “qualities” were a collaborative result of Gregory, Shawn, and Malle working to achieve it. It’s also amazing that Gregory (making his feature debut as an actor) was able to memorize so much dialogue. There are numerous long takes in which his monologues go on for stretches without breaks. Although it would be unfair to diminish Shawn’s contributions, the heavy lifting undoubtedly falls to Gregory.

Although the actors use their real names and some of the biographical details attributed to their characters come from real-life occurrences, both men have repeatedly denied that they are playing themselves. Instead, they created fictional avatars that were intentionally different from their true personalities. In an interview, Shawn even joked that if the two were to embark upon a remake (something highly unlikely although, at the time of this writing, both are still alive), they could swap roles without the need to change even a line of dialogue.

My Dinner with Andre has the look and feel of a stage show, although it was never developed as such. From the beginning, it was intended to be a movie. Gregory and Shawn, however, have deep roots in theater and they bring this to the film. Additionally, before going in front of the cameras, the pair hosted ten rehearsals on stage in front of live audiences with Malle not always in attendance.

At the beginning of the movie, I focused on the words, allowing myself to settle into the rhythms of the conversation between these old friends getting re-acquainted. Over time, however, I found myself becoming less interested in what the characters are saying and more intrigued by how Malle chooses to present the conversation: shot selection, editing close-ups into the master shots, etc. Expressions and reactions (especially Shawn’s, because much of his emoting occurs without words) are of paramount importance. Although My Dinner with Andre may be of minimal interest to mainstream movie-going audiences in the 2020s, it should be required viewing for would-be actors and behind-the-camera craftspeople. Although what Gregory and Shawn have to say may have lost a share of its relevance, how it’s presented offers a clinic in the importance of the non-verbal aspects of filmmaking.

My Dinner with Andre (United States, 1981)

Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory
Home Release Date: 2024-02-06
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn & Andre Gregory
Cinematography: Jeri Sopanen
Music: Allen Shawn
U.S. Distributor: New Yorker Films
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-02-06
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1