Louis Malle’s 1981 minimalist classic is one of the most cunningly deceptive films ever made. Ostensibly, it’s two hours of two old acquaintances having a dinner conversation in an upscale restaurant in New York, after having not seen each other in about six years.
One of them, an avant-garde theater director named Andre Gregory, has been traveling around the world and having one bizarre experience after another in a conscious pursuit of some sort of mystic enlightenment. The other, an actor and playwright named Wallace Shawn, is an altogether more pragmatic type who listens to his friend’s wild tales with polite skepticism before being moved to sputter out a protesting countervision. The film unfolds in what seems like real time, and Andre and Wally play themselves.
Or do they? There’s much more invention to this movie than meets the eye. Andre and Wally are indeed old friends, though the reunion in the restaurant is a fiction – they had never gone very long without seeing each other. To come up with Dinner’s two-hour conversation the friends taped about three months’ worth of often meandering talk, which Shawn spent nearly a year shaping into a screenplay. Once that was done and Louis Malle had signed on as director, there were five months of rehearsal, sometimes with a live audience, and then 16 days of actual shooting.
This is worth knowing because the film’s original and somewhat considerable reputation always had a suggestion of mystery about it: How could a film consisting of just two guys sitting around talking be so damned engaging – and, at times, so very funny? And not only has the material been carefully shaped, but the characters of Wally and Andre are dramatizations of their off-screen personas. They are, in fact, acting.
Gregory, charming in a hawk-like way, plays a glib visionary, drawn to the cultish and the esoteric, someone for whom the word "hallucination" is meaningless and who reads every coincidence in his life as though it were a telegram from a higher power. Shawn plays a less articulate but equally impassioned man anchored in quotidian reality, someone who becomes rapturous when talking about his new electric blanket.
At first poles apart, they reach a common ground as their dinner progresses – both have an abiding discomfort with the amount of emotional sublimation required to function in a complex society. The deadening feeling that one has after a day’s worth of false smiles may seem, for most people, just the price one pays for being a grown-up, but for Andre and Wally, it’s cause for alarm.
The old saw about the artist being childlike has some truth to it – and it’s an almost innocent sense of wonder about essential things which makes this wonderfully fabricated conversation so very interesting and so unexpectedly entertaining.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.