My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle, is a cult classic from 1981 that is still widely discussed today. It’s been called a prophetic look at a society that is increasingly alienated and dominated by technology. I hadn’t seen it for many years, so I thought it would be a good time to rewatch it and share my thoughts.
Just a Conversation
If you’ve never seen it, My Dinner With Andre is simply about two men, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory, playing themselves, having dinner at a restaurant. Yes, it’s all talk. The only thing that prevents it from seeming like a stage play are the scenes before and after the dinner, where we are treated to some vintage scenes of New York City in the early 80s.
There aren’t very many movies, especially popular ones, that are 99% dialogue. Some of Richard Linklater’s films, such as the Sunrise-Sunset trilogy are dialogue-heavy, but in that case there’s a romantic mood as well as a variety of scenes (e.g. European cities). Waking Life is a closer comparison, as it’s full of philosophical inquiries, but that film diverts us with animated special effects. My Dinner With Andre is just two guys sitting in a restaurant for almost 2 hours. Yet, the movie continues to captivate viewers more than 40 years after its premier.
Does My Dinner With Andre Have a Theme?
Fortunately, Wally and Andre aren’t just uttering random, meandering thoughts. Although their conversation veers in many directions, there are some central themes. Andre introduces a fairly radical criticism of modern society, describing how people are almost entirely inauthentic and sleepwalking through life. His point is reminiscent of the mystic George Gurdjieff, who spoke of people being unconscious. I don’t believe Andre mentions Gurdjieff, but he does refer to Zen, which emphasizes living in the moment. Wally, meanwhile, argues for a more conventional and less confrontational attitude.
I suspect the disagreements between Wally and Andre are a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect. Most of the discussions revolve around Andre’s outlook while Wally takes on more of a Devil’s Advocate role as he upholds the virtues of bourgeois comforts over adventure and radical discontent.
One could say Andre’s point of view reveals a certain bourgeois privilege, as he has the freedom to travel the world in his quest for self-actualization. Of course, he understands this fully and expresses the requisite self-loathing that is, ironically, also characteristic of bourgeois intellectuals.
A Prophetic Movie?
It’s popular in some circles to look back at all the dystopian prophets, such as Orwell and Huxley, and discuss who came closer to the truth. My Dinner With Andre is sometimes mentioned as a prophetic work.
Many of the topics do take a grim view of modern civilization and the direction it’s headed. It’s especially disturbing to hear about alienation and self-preoccupation in 1981, about 15 years before internet culture, much less smartphones and social media.
I don’t think Andre is a prophet as much as an astute observer of what was already happening. He says at one point that the 1960s were the “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.” To understand this point of view, it’s helpful to consider the era when these comments were made.
While it’s easy to be nostalgic about the 80s now, it was actually a rather pessimistic time, especially in big cities. The economy was in a recession, it was the middle of the Cold War, and the AIDS epidemic was peaking. This was also the beginning of the decline of New York’s (and America’s) middle class due to soaring housing costs. We get a glimpse of this mood early at the beginning of My Dinner With Andre, as Wally mentions his struggle paying bills and boards a graffiti-ridden subway.
It’s not entirely coincidental that Escape From New York, the post-apocalyptic thriller starring Kurt Russell as the vigilante anti-hero who rescues a US president who is trapped in a New York that has been turned into a prison, also came out in 1981. As different as these two films are, they share some of the dystopian angst that was in the air during that time.
Andre’s Vision of a New Underground
Andre’s vision is not wholly pessimistic. He advocates for a type of underground to keep civilization going during these new dark ages, using the model of communities such as Findhorn in Scotland, which is famous for its innovative agricultural methods and neo-pagan outlook.
This notion is similar to the concept of temporary autonomous zones, an anarchist ideal that advocates the formation of spontaneous pockets of resistance and culture. Sadly, such idealistic visions have not fared well when people make a serious attempt to implement them. This was brought to light in 2020, when an actual “autonomous zone” called CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) sprung up in Seattle, where the initial euphoria soon degenerated into violence.
Similar problems have plagued other utopian communities, including many that sprung up in the 1960s. I am digressing, but the point is that the kind of idealism Andre expresses is more easily experienced by financially independent individuals than by groups of people from disparate backgrounds who must contend with everyday survival and conflicting social forces around them.
Was the Movie Scripted or an Improvised Conversation?
As Wally and Andre talk, it would be easy to believe that the movie is a documentary, capturing a spontaneous conversation. It turns out that this was not the case. As you can read in the review by Roger Ebert, the film was actually carefully scripted and was taped over a period of several months. So the conversation reflects the two men’s actual personalities but we can assume many of the events discussed (especially in Andre’s life) were invented or exaggerated for dramatic effect.
My Dinner With Andre: A Timeless Classic
My Dinner With Andre is a movie worth watching every so often. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem dated today (aside from the shots of 1981 New York of course). Most of the topics they discuss are timeless. On the one hand, intellectuals have long bemoaned the decline of civilization. On the other hand, the modern world does seem to be getting ever more chaotic, alienated, and fragmented. My Dinner With Andre may not provide any solutions, but it can help to clarify some of the questions.