One theory of film holds that all movies do one of two things. They can expand your conception of the world by taking you some place you've never been, or they can confirm your deepest convictions by telling you that you are right to remain where you are. Uniquely, My Dinner With Andre does both, and a whole lot more besides. It's a film loaded with speculation on everything from art to death via mysticism and the danger of electric blankets. It can be endlessly rewound and re-watched, the carousel of ideas turning at a different angle according to your mood, mindset and position in life. It's probably the least likely masterpiece ever made.
What My Dinner With Andre doesn't have, at least in any conventional sense, is a cast, a plot or even a destination in mind. New York playwright Wallace Shawn (who co-wrote the film) meets his friend, the successful and urbane theatre director Andre Gregory (who also co-wrote) for dinner at a swanky NYC restaurant. Both appear as themselves .The pair used to be close but they haven't been in touch for a while, Andre having given up his career and his family to drift around the world on a restless spiritual odyssey. They sit down and for 100 or so minutes they talk, director Louis Malle capturing their conversation as it unfolds in real time.
Andre, it transpires, hasn't been idle in the five years since he walked out of his own life. He spent time in Poland where he joined an experimental theatre group and enacted mysterious rituals in the forest. He befriended a Japanese monk and they ate sand together in the desert. He helped build the Scottish spiritual retreat Findhorn. His children grew. His mother died. Then he returned to New York, not really any wiser and slightly ashamed to have thought of himself as a cultured aesthete to whom the normal rules of life don't apply. ("Like Albert Speer," he says, in his disarmingly playful way.)
Meanwhile Wally, for whom a ride through the city's streets is enough of an adventure - possibly in ways Andre doesn't quite appreciate - has been writing his plays, spending time with his girlfriend and calibrating his own ordinary sense of defeat. As a kid, he says, he thought of nothing but art. Now he thinks of nothing but money. Wally's an attentive listener and for an hour or so he lets Andre expound his theories on theatre, the subconscious and new age metaphysics. And then Wally candidly confesses to Andre that none of it makes any sense to him at all.
My Dinner With Andre was born out of actual conversations which Shawn and Gregory had, and it arrived at a point when the self-obsession of the 1970s was giving way to the self-assertion of the 1980s. (The 1960s, Andre suggests, may have represented a highpoint in the evolution of the Western cultural mind.) Loosely put, Andre's the seeker, Wally's the pragmatist and each represents a different response to life in an accelerated society speeding away from reality - whatever that may be.
Andre articulates the problem in a potent little allegory which explains why so many New Yorkers say they dream of leaving the city, yet somehow never do. "New York is the model for a new type of concentration camp," he says. "The camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards. They have pride in this thing they've built. They've built they're own prison and as a result they no longer have the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or even to see it as a prison."
It's a proposition which might have found its way into Louis Malle's bleakly brilliant 1963 film Le Feu Follet, yet neither Malle nor Shawn nor Gregory display any agenda or judgemental tendency. As Malle's camera hovers over the table, gliding in for close-ups and then stepping back to consider the response, every idea is food for thought. My Dinner is erudite, witty and playful but also deadly serious in its attempt to make sense of problems which, it's eventually acknowledged, can be apprehended yet never resolved. That's just the way life is.
The sheer range of references - from Surrealism to Judaism, from Nazis to sex - is exhilarating. The performances are disarmingly natural, and although it's clear that the conversation's evolution is the consequence of artful deliberation, it never feels less than authentically organic.
At first it appears as if the natural-born storyteller Andre, with his silver tongue and foxy face, is the more charismatic partner, and his first-hand reports from the front-line of self-discovery make his position seem even more seductive. Then he shuts up and lets Wally have a go. Shawn, who appeared as Diane Keaton's ex in Manhattan, looks every inch the nervous schlub, but his own observations on New Yorkers' self-distracting strategies, on status anxiety, social roles and the barriers to honest compassion suggest a more grounded perspective than Andre's.
Eventually both, in their different ways, agree that life's meaning - if indeed it has any - resides in occupying the moment. For Andre that might mean dancing in the woods at dawn with people who don't speak his language. For Wally it's about enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning and sitting down to read the paper. In itself this may not be a mind-blowing observation, but the conversational journey that takes them there is. As in life, the trick is to keep on looking.
Those who love this film describe their own constantly evolving relationship with Andre and Wally and the arguments they propose: when you're young it's the idealistic Andre and his call for passion and magic that seems to triumph. In middle-age it's Wally and his sensible sense of expediency. In old age no doubt they'll both seem equally valid - as they clearly are for the filmmakers. At whatever point you encounter this, and whether you allow it to confirm or confound your convictions, the film is a timeless delight.