It would be easy to see this in a bad light, dominated as it is by the experiences of André. André is rich, privileged enough to be able to afford a mid-life crisis where he doesn’t have to work and can travel the world rejecting everything he has so far achieved as an artist. Wallace, whom he is trying to convince that this is the right path, is a poor struggling playwright.
As André tells him it is bad to feel warm in one’s apartment in winter – how can one tell one is alive? -, Wallace says happiness for him is when his coffee in the morning, cold from the night before, doesn’t have a cockroach in it. And he means this, he isn’t being a smart-ass. When you are poor you find your pleasures where you can.
A nice juxtaposition. I was reminded of a friend of mine some months ago telling me that life is not about material complacency. She has a penthouse in the city and a house in the south of France, but that doesn’t mean she is wrong, of course. I immediately tossed my warmest coat.
We find a complex balance between the views of the two men and although people tend to side with Wallace, I think it is not as simple as that.
Wally: Yes, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, André, because New York is cold, our apartment is cold in the winter. It’s a difficult environment. Our lives are tough enough as it is. I mean, I’m not trying to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort, because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself, because really there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided, everywhere you look.
André: But Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable, and I like to be comfortable too, but don’t you see that comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquillity? I mean, my mother knew a woman, Lady Hatfield, who was one of the richest women in the world, but she died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. I mean, she just liked chicken, Wally, and that was all she would eat, and actually her body was starving, but she didn’t know it, because she was quite happy eating her chicken, and so she finally died. You see, I honestly believe we’re all like Lady Hatfield now. We’re having a lovely, comfortable time with our electric blankets and our chicken, and meanwhile we’re starving, because we’re so cut off from contact with reality that we’re not getting any real sustenance. Because we don’t see the world. We don’t see ourselves.
They are both right. But André doesn’t understand that it is only his material comfort that makes him right about himself, whereas Wallace’s lack of the same means his dilemmas are physical, not philosophical.
I had assumed when I first saw the Malle movie, that it was a movie of a play. In fact the situation is quite the opposite. The film is the result of many hours of André and Wallace talking. The book is the unedited script, so it is warts and all. I mean, if Wallace starts every sentence with ‘I mean’, so it reads. I really do think, under the circumstances, that it is best to see the movie before or instead of reading the book. It does add life to the book.
This is seen as part one of a trilogy, though it was a long time until the other two were written. See The Fever and The Designated Mourner.
I’m waiting for the book to arrive, but surely in any case, to see the movie, directed by Malle, is the best way to read this.
Being an aficionado of books and movies in which nothing happens, for sheer nothingness this takes the cake and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. And yet, Roger Ebert, in one of his reviews of the film, could call it a ‘thrilling drama – a film with more action than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indeed it is this. A film that is literally no more than two people chatting to each other for a couple of hours while eating dinner is thrilling. Ebert explains it thus: ‘What ‘My Dinner With Andre’ exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told.’
To try to convince you of this I can do no better than quote Ebert again:
…there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.
See it. Read it.