When I was 18, my girlfriend and I went to see My Dinner With Andre at the Plaza Theater in Petaluma. We were, to put it mildly, pretentious young intellectuals. After the film, we went to a restaurant and ordered french fries that we tried to “really taste.” If I weren’t involved in the memory, I would find it charming. But I am involved, and I find it at least a little embarrassing.
Thus it was with some glee that I approached watching this film 30 years later. Before, I found Wally to be a pathetic character, deserving of equal doses of pity and scorn. In contrast, Andre was an admirable man tackling tough questions with as much success as anyone could hope from. Now, I expected to find Andre a pretentious bore and Wally a kind of working class hero of the intelligentsia. But it was not to be.
My Dinner With Andre made me feel a little better about myself, because I think my outlook on the world has done more than change over the past three decades; it has improved. I found that I quite liked both Wally and Andre. I saw myself in both of them; I saw everyone in both of them. More than anything, I saw us all in the waiter—a character I didn’t even notice at 18.
This is a film about two connected issues: class and needs. Wally is motivated by fear, because his place in society is dominated by insecurity. Andre has transcended fear, because of his professional success, which has removed economic uncertainty. But he is just as lost as Wally—maybe more so. Wally looks forward to a life where simple creature comforts can make him happy. I don’t see the next step for Andre, other than a sad resignation that some things are unknowable.
The waiter is the most interesting character. In his role, he constrains the other characters, even chastising Andre when he gets too exciting. Yet, the waiter has no power, other than the anonymity of the role he plays. At the end of the film, when all the guest are gone and Wally and Andre are about to leave, he smokes a cigarette. It is the only time we see beyond the character he plays. Unlike Wally and Andre who are only aware of the characters they play in life in the most intellectual terms, the waiter knows his character as well as he knows the tuxedo that he wears as part of it.
Everyone gets what they need in My Dinner With Andre. Andre gets to relate to another human being. Wally gets a free meal. And the waiter gets paid. But it is a horrific image of life. Any of the three people could easily fit into any of the three characters. If the waiter had been born with modest talent to upper-middle-class parents, he could have been Wally. If one of Wally’s plays had been a hit, he could have been Andre. If Andre had had some very bad luck, he might be a waiter in some posh New York restaurant—or worse. I don’t think that it is an accident that this is a major theme Wallace Shawn’s Essays. It is an issue that upsets him greatly. And me. And that should upset everyone.