The Daily Stream: Finding The Cinema Of Conversation In My Dinner With Andre

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "My Dinner with Andre"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max, Criterion Channel

The Pitch: Wallace Shawn, playing himself, is a struggling playwright and actor living in New York. He gets roped into joining an old acquaintance, avant-garde theatre director Andre Gregory, for dinner. The two both agree on how performance shapes reality, but aside from that, they could not have more different worldviews. Andre tells stories of flying off to Poland to make a theatre piece in a forest with a group of dozens who don't speak the same language or adapting "The Little Prince" in the Sahara. While Wallace Shawn is fascinated by his lifestyle, he fails to see the practicality in it and how most people cannot afford to live the way Andre does. And that is the whole movie. These two men trade stories and discuss art, life, death, and everything in between over the course of dinner at a nice restaurant. They do not come to any specific revelations or conclusions. The discussion is enough, and each man is left to ponder the other's viewpoints as the dinner ends.

Why it's essential viewing

When people talk about stage plays being adapted for the screen, there are so many references to the notion of "opening up" the play. The strengths of the stage and the screen do have some crossover, but for a lot of people, people sitting in a room and endlessly talking seems absolutely deadly up on the big screen, where that is the lifeblood of stage drama. Now, "My Dinner with Andre" is not based on a play, but it comes from the brain of two theatrical minds. Its construction is inherently built for the theater. Nearly the entire film takes place with these two men in a single restaurant booth talking to one another. There's no place to open up the film. We have to be in this solitary space with these two.

What Shawn and Gregory, along with director Louis Malle, understand is that really all you need to capture the attention of an audience is people. The lives of people and how they talk about what they experience are what capture us in our day-to-day lives. Why should that be any different on screen? Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory both live colorful, unique lives, and "My Dinner with Andre" acts as a way to briefly peek in on their minds.

Also, by placing the action of the piece in a real restaurant rather than a facsimile on the stage of a 99-seat theatre, it grounds the flowery monologues they deliver into something truly authentic. Having a waiter occasionally come by and refill their drinks or clear their plates immediately dissolves the inherent theatricality of its core.

We love others' conversations, not our own

Communication is vital for human existence. Unfortunately, we live in a continuously isolating world, partly by choice and partly by global circumstances. How often are you truly sitting down with one or a few other people and having a lengthy discussion that's not about simple trivialities? My guess is not often. As a substitute, we absorb discussions of others. Just look at the rise of podcasts in recent years. People spend hours upon hours upon hours listening to people talk about politics, film, sex, or any number of topics, myself included. I'm even listening to a podcast as I am writing this piece.

"My Dinner with Andre" satiates that desire better than almost any podcast can hope precisely because it is cinema. Having these precise visuals captured by Louis Malle along with the discussion forces you to give it your complete attention. Could you just have an audio version of the film to listen to on your drive to work, but you would miss out on so much of the emotion and context of their conversation? Being at that booth with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory is just as powerful as hearing what they have to say.

This is a film that manages to be both bold and simple. It's an idea that seems like something anyone could come up with but almost nobody would think to try. "My Dinner with Andre" may just be a film about two men talking to each other over dinner, but they find more to say about humanity in five minutes than other films do in their entire running times. You might think that watching two people talk and eat for two hours could be tedious, but this is a more invigorating and thought-provoking dinner than you have ever had.