Friday, 28 March 2014

My Dinner With Andre: The Cinematic Paradox

When I first heard about Louis Malle's 1981 film My Dinner With Andre I was skeptical of its premise: two men sitting in a restaurant having a conversation. There's no other people outside of a few extras and the waiter (who has a background role at most) or scenes taking place away from the table (outside of the beginning and end).

Literally, it's just two hours of these guys sitting at a table and talking. How could anyone make that interesting? What sane director would even consider attempting such a project? After all, doesn't that violate everything you're always told to do when making a movie? (remember, "Show, don't tell") Naturally, this must be the set-up for the most absurd, boring, and pointless movie in the world, right?

From what I understand of its director, Louis Malle, he's not exactly one who likes to stick to conventional cinema. The only other film I've seen of his was Vanya on 42nd Street, in which I failed to understand the play that was being performed but was intrigued by his approach of blurring the lines between fiction and reality. We get plenty of moments where the actors appear to be casual and simply being themselves only to suddenly realize they've been in character and rehearsing a scene in their play for the past few minutes, and even when we know they're performing there's moments that ground us back to the fact that they're working in a rundown theater in New York.

Back to the issue at hand, no sane Hollywood director would even consider attempting such a project. The only sort of person who might consider attempting to make a movie that violates every piece of advice you have ever been given about film making and what in theory should be the setup to the most boring movie in the universe would be an experimental filmmaker like Louis Malle.

The weird part is that, believe it or not, it actually works. Somehow, this guy managed to take the worst possible idea that could ever be conceived for a film, and make it into something fascinating. What we have here is the ultimate paradox of cinema. How is a movie like this in any way possible?

To be fair, while My Dinner With Andre might be one of the most notorious cases, the idea of a movie driven entirely between the interactions between a small group of people confined to a single setting is hardly new. This sort of thing works fine on stage. In fact it's practical, given you're confined to a single platform and the audience can only watch from one angle. On film, theoretically, one should try to show as much as possible, but averting that can work.

Let's look at an earlier case made, ironically enough, by a Hollywood director while the Studio System was still in place. The year 1957 saw the release of a movie by Sydney Lumet titled Twelve Angry Men. Though the part about it being an all-white and all-male jury might rub some modern viewers the wrong way (there's a reason the stage version is often retitled Twelve Angry Jurors), it still manages to hold up as a compelling examination of the legal system and the pressure to ensure the right decision is made. However, when you get down to it, the basic plot is essentially just a bunch of guys in one room arguing with each other.

Heck, even to bring up a more contemporary example, Quentin Tarantino's critically acclaimed thriller Reservoir Dogs has a bit more action and some shift in setting due to the non-linear structure, and a climactic Mexican stand-off, but let's not forget that we never actually see the heist and the bulk of the plot is essentially a bunch of guys standing around in a warehouse arguing about why their heist went wrong.

So we do know that this kind of plot can be made to work, but My Dinner With Andre is nowhere near as tense as Reservoir Dogs or Twelve Angry Men, not to mention it has a drastically smaller cast. There is some dispute between the two men but they're fairly civil about it, and there's no sense of immediate urgency. In fact it's quite the opposite, Wally and Andre both take their time in their discussion, so much so that they lose track of time and end up being interrupted by the staff informing them that the restaurant is about to close.

Perhaps while the stakes were high in 12 Angry Men or Reservoir Dogs, the appeal of the conversation seen in My Dinner With Andre is quite simply the presence of an interesting conversation. Theoretically speaking, it should make more sense on film to show some of the experiences Andre talks about to Wally, but some of the anecdotes do get a bit strange. Maybe in some ways it is better this way because the image we're left with in our minds would be far more interesting than anything that could be put on screen, or perhaps it's supposed to connect us more to Wally, the introvert who hasn't been out quite as much as Andre, and could himself probably only imagine these things.

Of course, the anecdotes between Andre and Wally only make up the first act or so of the movie, and later on they get into a philosophical debate. While they both take conflicting sides and make their cases, they don't exactly end up pulling guns on each other over it but perhaps that's just what makes the movie work.

In other words, the fact that the movie breaks all the rules of what you should do when making a movie is precisely the reason why it works so well. It is the ultimate paradox of cinema, to break the important rule of "show, don't tell", and running with what in theory should be the worst idea ever conceived for a movie yet somehow creating something incredible. The minimalist structure does have a very strange sort of charm to it, and there is this sense of fascination in the simple interaction between these characters.

That right there must be the solution. Despite the minimalist nature of the setting, the two characters are complex and serve as foils to one another right down to their wardrobe (notice how Andre wears what looks like a bathrobe and what looks to be a very casual attire underneath, providing a sharp contrast to Wally's suit and tie). Perhaps what makes a movie like this so fascinating is quite simply in the way these two characters play off of each other.

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