My Dinner With Andre and the Cost of Enlightenment
I watched My Dinner With Andre (1981) almost out of a sense of obligation. It’s a generally well-regarded film, and Community did a wonderful parody of it, so it felt that my film knowledge was lacking without what I’m sure is a transformative experience for many viewers.
The film is merely the filming of a conversation, a long one over dinner among two esteemed colleagues, mourning the death of the conversation. Death is what bookends the discussion, for as the film puts it, to truly know life, and therefore really understand reality, is to also know death. In fearing death, we become insular, merely perform roles in our lives, and never truly communicate with anyone on a sincere level in fear of pain, and ultimately, death. For a film directly expressing philosophical beliefs, I am surprised the phrase “hedgehog’s dilemma” never came up.
Of course, the script, written by our two leads Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, essentially playing themselves, is more natural and expressive than a mere philosophical tract. The film is consistently engaging as the two beautifully act their lines, the film making at its bare bones realism to support the words above all else. This doesn’t mean the camera is completely static, but rather, director Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants ) moves the camera only when necessary. The camera zooms only once, making Andre’s face an inescapable presence as he describes being prepared for death and experience that immanent reality. It shifts to show the waiter preparing to serve the next dinner item. But mostly, this film is composed of faces and torsos, demanding the audience recognize that we are all connected and need that connection for a truly happy life.
While the film laments the lack of good communication and notes the phoniness of everyday life, it fails to fully examine the source of these maladies of society. Only twice does the film brush against the beast of capitalism, in meaningful and articulate ways, but all too brief. Wally mentions feeling rejected when he mentions he’s a playwright of middling success, but never realizing the depravity of capitalism’s mechanical methods of finding worth in human beings. Andre fairs worse, telling tales of friends who merely wander the earth to avoid the phoniness of everyday life, advocating retreat rather than radical change. While Wally grounds his claims with good counterpoints (not everyone can afford to visit Poland, Tibet, and India for their own self-enlightenment, Andre), Andre’s comments dominate the conversation and the film.
The film is essentially two elites (or at least, have connection with cultural elites) unintentionally committing volatile snobbery. They lament the death of the conversation and meekly chastise the unenlightened masses to fight against the consumerist habits that put us to sleep, while speaking from a place of privilege, a place where from a secure sense of life they might have time and energy to think about such things. Rather than a systemic analysis (I.e. how did society get here), the film tends to place the blame on the individual level.
I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when watching this film (I suppose it’s nice to hear my intro psychology course was indeed worth something.) As beings whose primary needs are satisfied (physiological, safety, etc.), Wally and Andre have the time and energy to invest into cognitive needs, and ultimately self-actualization. Now, Maslow’s ideas had no scientific backing data whatsoever, and fell out of vogue after the great humanist enthusiasms of the 50s and 60s, but I find some truth here. Of course it’s easier for these two intellectual gentlemen to discuss such high notions of human existence, they aren’t worried about their next meal. Poverty does not tax their brains.
Ultimately, I find Talking Head’s work on Remain in Light (1980), especially “Once in a Lifetime,” going over many of the same concerns about performance in everyday life with a less contemptuous point of view. While My Dinner With Andre does not outright scoff at the unenlightened masses, its lack of systemic analysis results in upholding individual enlightenment as the answer, not realizing that it’s ultimately a privilege of elites.