The concept could not be simpler, or at the same time more audacious: Two friends, out of touch for years on end, reunite in a tony New York City restaurant and get caught up with each other. No gimmicks; no distractions; no injections of comic relief on the part of the wait staff or the chef; just two men of wit, intelligence, and sharply divergent worldviews sharing the lives they've been living. Most people, when confronted with the film's concept, say: That's it? To which I'd reply: That's all you need.
The André of the title is André Gregory, a longtime veteran of the theater, tall and greyhoundishly handsome in the manner of Roy Scheider. His friend is Wallace Shawn, a balding, rotund, squeaky-voiced fireplug of a man; Princess Bride fans will remember him immediately from that film as the cackling, villainous Vizzini. André and Wally are essentially playing versions of themselves, not improvising in real time (as many people mistakenly believed) but instead acting from a screenplay distilled down from dozens of hours of conversation between them.
Both men have been through rough times, inwardly and outwardly. Wally, a playwright and sometime actor, the movie's narrator and point of view, has found himself becoming quotidian and harried, hemmed in by life's compromises. "When I was ten years old," he tells us in the opening scene, "I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I'm thirty-six, and all I think about is money." André, by contrast, has returned from a prolonged, whirlwind tour of all manner of odd corners of the world, and turned up a few nights ago sobbing on a streetcorner, shattered by the recognition of truth in a line in an Ingmar Bergman movie: "I could always live in my art, but never in my life."
With little settling-in save for Wally's nervous scene-setting (he's apparently been avoiding André for some time, he confesses to us), the movie seats them at their table and sets them talking for almost two hours. Much of the first half is taken up with André recounting all manner of wild stories from his journeys, stuff that would seem like the substance of any ten lifetimes. He spent time with an experimental Polish theatrical troupe, where spontaneity of behavior mattered more than having a common language. He brought a Buddhist priest into his family, with awkward results. He had hallucinations and visions and partook of grand Utopian schemes. And after all of it, he's become blessed (if that's the word) with a vision of his own: a great and abiding worry that mankind is being dumbed down, starved of imagination, roboticized and numbed and coddled into assembly-line oblivion.
At first Wally can do little more than listen, wide-eyed. All this is not so much outside of his experience as it is against his inclinations. In time, though, he begins to respond to his friend, and with more than just placeholder conversation or baffled non sequiturs. He understands what André hungers for; he's suffered more than a little of the deadening qualities of modern life himself. But he's not a mystic at heart, and he knows it. He likes his coffee in the morning and the Times waiting at his doorstep; he likes snuggling up under an electric blanket with his girlfriend. He's miffed at the way André finds even a creature comfort like an electric blanket to be something that cuts us off from experience, from life as it is really lived. But for André, a cup of coffee and an electric blanket are life as it is really lived. He doesn't need to go to the edge of the world to find the truth of life; it's right there at his feet. "Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality?" he argues. "If you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!"
The tug of war, the back-and-forth, between the two friends, is what makes up most of the second half of the film. Both agree on the way the soul is being sapped from modern life, but Wally isn't prepared to dump science and the values of the Enlightenment in favor of what could be called the William Blake Experience, where ecstatic revelation is more important than true knowing. And André, too, is uneasy about the ways the quest for spiritual experience can often pass into the hands of cynics and opportunists and exploiters. Neither man has a definitive answer, but both are asking the same questions. Maybe that matters more than them being in agreement.
For a movie that is almost all talk — funny, soulful, heartwrenching talk — there is more action in André, more edge-of-the-seat suspense than any ten movies where things are blown up. Because so much of what happens is described rather than shown, it takes place in our imaginations, and far more freely leverages suspension of disbelief in the audience than a more literal film could. it encourages us to be participants, to listen and not simply receive. I can imagine another, inferior version of this film, where the director cut away from the action at the table to show us all that's being described, with André and Wally in voice-over. That would have been a mistake: the movie is not about the details of those stories, but the process of it being told from one to the other, the process of André's words being responded to and struggled with by Wally. And so director Louis Malle wisely decided to not tamper with the movie's formula or call undue attention to it, but instead assembled it with the same shot-for-shot attention he would give to any other, more bustling film.
I don't think there can be any one definitive reading of a film this open-ended, and I suspect that is entirely the plan, but I have my own interpretation, something I have hinted at earlier. It is that the reading of André as the "spiritual" one and Wally as the "worldly" one is superficial, perhaps even flat-out wrong. Wally is in his own way just as spiritual as André, but he seeks spiritual experiences in being grounded in the world around him. The fact that he does not seek them by going to Tibet or having a flag made to capture spirits, as André has done, does not make him any less spiritual of a person, does not make his hunger for meaning in his life any less valid or profound. It is somewhat easier for most people to empathize with him — the reason, I suspect, he is the movie's POV character — than it is with the flighty and impulsive, if also charming, André.
Making André and finding an audience for it were both challenges. Gregory and Shawn developed the idea on their own and fought against constant pushback from prospective producers and distributors claiming the idea was better suited to the stage, not the screen. The film struggled to find an audience, and was on the verge of being yanked from distribution, when a number of key critics — Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, to name two, by way of their TV show — helped introduce the movie to the urbane and thoughtful audiences of 1981 that then could still be found attending the movies. It ended up playing for over a year — what movie today even lasts a month? — and has since gone on to be a touchstone for movie watchers impatient with manufactured drama and artificial ruckus. It is, I fear, a product of its nervy, narcissistic age in a way that might turn people off. That and the fact that it's about two men, with women all but abstractions in it, has dated it at least as much as its post-Age-of-Aquarius thinking. But the parts of it that are the most vital, the spiritual wrestling match between André and Wally, have no expiration dates.
I have seen My Dinner With André four times now — first on VHS when I was still in my teens; another time later on in my twenties; again in my thirties on DVD; and now again in my forties. One round for each decade. Like La Dolce Vita or Umberto D., my own changes are mirrored in what I take away from the film. At first I saw André as nothing more than a daring technical exercise in filmmaking; look at what they got away with! Then it became a reflection of my own struggles, with André and Wally both giving voice to sides of me that wanted to either shirk the world or settle comfortably into it. Now I see it as the embodiment of a grand dialogue between two halves of the self, both of which share longings, albeit not the same plans for satisfying those longings. What matters is not who "wins", but rather how each might benefit from the other, and how the soul food of the dialogue itself matters most above all. For a movie that's nothing more than two guys talking, it really IS about two guys talking.