As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
My Dinner with Andre was a movie which came out in 1981 and was directed by Louis Malle, starring Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both of whom co-authored the script together. In the film, Andre and Wallace meet at an upscale French restaurant in Manhattan. Wallace who hasn't seen Andre in years is dreading the event; as he heard stories that Andre was depressed, seeking answers, breaking down and crying over an Ingmar Bergman movie called Autumn Sonata—shortly after Ingmar's character says I could always live in my art, but never in my life.
Despite Wally's apprehension, when the two meet, they exchange pleasantries, embrace, have a drink, and start talking philosophy—deep philosophy, the kind that invokes existential nightmares and should make this movie rated R, not PG. Because once you start thinking you just can't stop, as apparent by the nearly 2-hour long conversation in the film. To be fair, the original script was 3+ hours long before it was edited by Wally, and edited further by Louis.
Like the movies The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Pleasantville, this movie also explores, albeit to a different extent, the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction. This becomes apparent through the discussion of the boundaries between theater and reality, such as, Andre's experiments in acting without a purpose—without goals, without direction. Andre believes that because of goals, most people live their lives out of habits, and if you are operating just out of habits, you're not really living. You are merely plodding along like a zombified robot of sorts; alive, but not conscious. Here he also mentions a mathematician named Robert Ogilvie Crombie (ROC) who would change his habits daily, like writing with his left hand instead of his right, or doing things out of order just to break up the daily routine.
Consequently, Andre believes the only way to live life, the only way to be, is to strip away purpose, to strip away goals, and just live. Here he notes that the Sanskrit root of the word "be" is "to grow," and it is only through going back to this primordial state of being that we can truly grow, blossom into the person we should be. He learned this lesson only after traveling the world, trekking through deserts, journeying with a Buddhist monk, and finally being buried alive on Halloween; and ironically it was only after this mock death that he was able to return to the world of the living.
Wally, who has the exact opposite personality of Andre is just trying to survive, just trying to make it from day to day—pay his bills, drink cold coffee (preferably without bugs), and read a few books. Unlike Andre, his goal is to stay busy. He counters Andre's frivolous adventures with the thought that the unexplored cigar shop around the corner holds just as many treasures if not more than a visit to Mt. Everest. Instead of stripping life of its purpose to experience a state of pure being, he reasons that purposefulness is part of our human nature. He sums up his argument as follows:
Wally: I think, uh, it's our nature, uh, to do things. I think we should do things. I think that, uh, purposefulness is part of our ineradicable basic human structure. And to say that we ought to be able to live without it is like saying that, uh, a tree ought to be able to live without branches or roots. But—but actually, without branches or roots, it wouldn't be a tree. I mean, it would just be a log. Do you see what I'm saying?
Andre: You know, when I went to Ladakh in western Tibet and stayed on a farm for a month, well, there you know, when people come over in the evening for tea, nobody says anything. Unless there's something to say, but there almost never is. So they just sit there and drink their tea, and it doesn't seem to bother them. You see the trouble, Wally, with always being active and doing things is that I think it's quite possible to do all sorts of things and at the same time be completely dead inside.
Andre: I mean, it's a very frightening thing, Wally, to have to suddenly realize that, my God, I thought I was living my life, but in fact I haven't been a human being.
Andre goes on further to talk about how most people aren't really living; rather they are just acting in roles, e.g., as father, husband, friend, writer, director, etc. out of habit. Eventually, Andre concludes that being with his wife was most important for him.
In short, it is hard to capture the complete essence of this movie, the complete philosophy that the two discuss. Both have opposite perspectives, and both raise good points. But likely, the message is that both extremes, the life of just being without purpose, and the life where every moment is filled with so many goals that it also becomes purposeless, are both paths that lead to meaninglessness. If one goes through life like a robot acting merely out of habit, one becomes the robot. In this case, one has purpose insofar as the purpose is to complete tasks, eat, sleep, repeat; but as a result, one does not have meaning; and the same can be said of the creature which simply exists as an amoeba lost to the forces of nature. In some sense, the whole movie is quotable, and a movie that is well worth your time to watch. But even so, although philosophy is an interesting subject, several times throughout the movie, I paused to take breaks. It's intense, intensely boring, intensely fascinating, intensely thought-provoking. I was spellbound as I evoked incantation after incantation to ward off the sandman. But in the end, I'm really glad to have watched and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Overall - 7
Meaning of Life Relevance - 10
Uniqueness – 7
If you are interested in hearing what the actors had to say about the movie nearly 30 years after, check out their interviews on Youtube:
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