Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Dinner With Andre (1980)


Director: Louis Malle

Summary

A struggling playwright and stage actor in New York has an engaging dinner with an estranged friend.

Yep. That's it.

What Did I Think?

Apparently, this movie was hailed as a wonderfully novel and fascinating experiment in film - an entire movie composed of almost nothing more than a single conversation presented in real time between a couple of friends. The premise being that the conversation itself will be so fascinating that no other effects, adornments, or "movie tricks" should be necessary.

Straight away, I have a problem with considering this approach "novel". Way back in the earliest days of cinema, one of the common criticisms leveled at the medium was that is was usually comprised of a single camera shot, trained on a single set where there actors played out the story. In other words, it was essentially a stage play. Eventually, certain geniuses like Georges Melies, D.W. Griffith, and others started to make use of the techniques of varied photo perspectives and film editing, which set film apart from other storytelling media. With this bit of history in mind, a film like My Dinner With Andre seems much more like a regression rather than something bold or novel.

Visually, this is all you get in this movie: Andre (right)
absorbed in his own exposition, and Wallace sitting there,
wearing a perpetually dopey look of puzzlement.
So what about the "dinner"? Is the conversation truly that engaging? My short answer is "no." The entire thing revolves around the Andre character telling his estranged friend, Wallace (both of whom play somewhat fictionalized version of themselves), about his whereabouts and thoughts during the past several years, during which he had all but vanished. Andre had been a very successful writer and director in the New York theater scene, but he had turned his back on that success, as well as his wife and children, in order to basically "find himself" and seek out some sort of life purpose. It's a bit of a Gauguin story.

For most of the first 30 to 45 minutes, Andre talks about various experimental workshops and communes in which he has taken part, in order to stoke some sort of creativity or new perspectives on life. These involve strange near-bacchanalia, shared spontaneous experiences, and other quirky and bizarre gatherings and individual characters. During this first half or so of the film, I couldn't shake the feeling that people who are directly involved in the theater and its creative processes would be enthralled. To someone like me, however, it came off as self-absorbed pretension. This is typified by the fact that these two men, who claim to have little to no interest in finery or "bourgeois" trappings, are eating in a 5-star restaurant. I refuse to believe that the writer (Wallace himself) failed to realize this. I'm just not exactly sure what the point of this detail was. Maybe that Andre is blind to his own hypocrisy? Or perhaps that, in the end, he just doesn't care anymore? Either conclusion is unsatisfying.

The conversation does eventually take a turn towards the more universal, not merely restricting itself to an analysis of literary or theatrical creativity. When the conversation turns to more accessible subjects such as where we do or do not derive pleasure in life, or how one engages in a meaningful existence, it does become more engaging. But there wasn't quite enough of it for my liking.

Surprisingly, I found the acting rather poor. Perhaps is was because the two actors are more accustomed to the stage, but they seemed to be overdoing it a bit. The intonation, gestures, and facial expressions all seemed meant for an audience who was sitting 20 to 100 feet away from them. Had they (or maybe more naturalistic film actors) played it with more subtlety, then it would have had exponentially more power. Though I suspect that this is a personal preference of mine, given that I generally dislike any actions or speech that I feel are overly dramatic.

This certainly wasn't a film for me. But I can easily see how those who are deeply into the theater or creative personalities would greatly enjoy it. If you count yourself among this group, you should certainly give it a try.

Forthcoming Reviews:

Top Secret!, Tyson, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Goon, and Coraline. Stay tuned!!