Tonight, the lucky people of New York City will be offered a rare treat. As part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s weeklong tribute to director Louis Malle, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn will appear for a panel discussion following the 6:15 screening of their film, My Dinner with Andre. So if you’re in New York and you have plans tonight, cancel them.
My Dinner with Andre is one of those films people struggle with, and I understand why. At just about every turn, you can almost feel Malle consciously resisting cinematic pleasures as they present themselves. To some viewers, this asceticism can feel like stubbornness, as if the director were willfully pitting himself against the audience in a battle of endurance, which is why, I think, the movie has that magical art-house ability to turn normal people into curmudgeons.
Watching the character of Wally Shawn struggle to accept Andre’s ridiculous stories of how he achieved enlightenment, I’ve seen people snort at the vapid pretentiousness of it all, wishing to god the film would end. But of course, the joke’s on them because My Dinner with Andre is a comedy.
Don’t believe me? Wait for Wally Shawn’s reaction shots. Malle is oh-so careful to place them at moments of high incredulity, where they do the work of punch lines. Not only does this technique ally us with Wally (our reactions seem always to match his), and add much needed warmth to an otherwise cerebral picture, but it opens us, the audience, to the pleasure of gently satirizing Andre.
Look for these moments – scattered throughout the picture like Easter Eggs – when you start to feel your inner curmudgeon emerging, and don’t be surprised to find yourself laughing less and less as they accrue. By the end of My Dinner with Andre, a film about shaking us out of our own spiritual sleepwalks, you may realize that for all of Andre’s flamboyance, and for all of the giggles we have at his expense, the greatest joke of all – the most serious joke imaginable – is on Wally. It’s on us too.
So if you’re in New York and you have plans tonight, cancel them and go to My Dinner with Andre with an open mind and full stomach. But wait on that drink. You’re going to want it after your sleepwalk ends.