Which films imbue you with affirmations about the human condition? Are you a fanatic of The Shawshank Redemption, with its universally binding theme of friendship and perseverance conquering all, even the degradation of imprisonment? Perhaps you go nuts for Linklater’s Waking Life and the fantastical, deeply cerebral dreamscapes that the protagonist wanders through, engaging in philosophical tete-a-tetes with a wide variety of characters. I for one was entranced at a very early age by Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, drinking in Robin Williams’ incredible educator and his insistence on ‘Carpe Diem’, feeling encouraged to think critically and seize the day at all times (which admittedly doesn’t succeed all of the time, as life can sometimes be a right tosser).
Whatever they are, it’s important to remind yourself often of those great works if not revisit them, ever reconnecting with the honest, expertly crafted pathos that continues to enrapture you, inspiring you to pull your thumb out and shoo away the lurking spectres of self-doubt, navel-gazing, sweating the small stuff and preoccupation with mortality. The film that encapsulates all of that for me is a 1981 cult classic from French cinema titan Louis Malle. It’s a peculiar, funny, fascinating and incredibly poignant picture, one that has moved me like no other, and it consists of two estranged friends meeting for dinner and discussing life’s hard questions for just under two hours.
Wally (Wallace Shawn) is a struggling playwright living in New York City. Sharing an apartment with his girlfriend Debbie, he has had relatively minor success in his chosen career, and wakes up every day to responsibilities and existential crises kicking his ass in the cold light of The Big Apple. After five years without a word, Wally is contacted by old friend and theatre director Andre (Andre Gregory), who invites him for an evening of reacquaintance and fine food at the Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan.
Almost immediately, Andre begins to regale Wally with tales of his international adventures with manic fervour. His exploits include working with an experimental theatre troupe in a Polish forest under the direction of avant-garde dramatic theorist Jerzy Grotowski, a stay in the intentional community of Findhorn in Scotland, attempting to produce a philosophical play in the Sahara desert and having some Halloween-themed fun with Long Island performance artists. It’s a highly intriguing deluge of stories impeccably delivered by Gregory, giving the impression of a man who has been so psychospiritually transformed by his experiences that he can no longer relate to ordinary life, in NYC or anywhere else. The viewer’s tolerance will certainly rest on whether you interpret Andre as an insatiably enthusiastic explorer of crusading intellect, or as a narcissistic blowhard who adores the sound of his own voice and how everything could conceivably relate back to his emotions, ideas and opinions. I personally find his dialogue to be transportive, swift and easy visualisation of his chronicles adding a rich layer to the narrative.
Having sat there and listened intently for the best part of an hour, Wally is confounded by how drastically his friend’s personality and worldview has changed since the last time they spoke. A practical humanist and consummate cynic, Wally tries his damndest to never take the minutiae of life for granted, be it a nice hot cup of coffee, the heavy comfort of his duvet during those cold New York nights and exchanging silent affections with his significant other. While he may appreciate the profound effect that Andre’s endeavours have had on him as an individual, he believes that his friend may be somewhat away with the fairies, his commitment to esoteric self-discovery being incompatible with the hard realities of daily life. He also sees kernels of delusional arrogance in Andre’s insistence that more people should be striving to push themselves and similarly open their minds. During the ensuing debate, the duo traverses the meaning of life, pragmatism vs. idealism, social philosophy and the degree of comfort in their own private lives, creating a smorgasbord of existentialism that’s as tasty as the gourmet mess they’re snacking on.
Playing fictionalised versions of themselves, Shawn and Gregory (close pals in real life) have wonderful chemistry, the former’s squinting, cocked-eyebrowed bemusement being the perfect antidote to the latter’s intense and fanciful loquaciousness. Both characters serve as brilliantly comprehensive avatars for the audience’s potential reactions to the subjects discussed on screen. An immediately obvious perspective suggests Wally as the down-to-earth everyman, making the best of what’s in front of him and having little patience for Andre’s lofty blathering, engaging the practical concerns of the average viewer who elects to enjoy what little free time they have indulging in the things they love as opposed to a piecemeal dissection of their very being.
You could just as easily be somebody who relates to both characters on a dichotomous level, seeing the equal value in Andre’s inquisitiveness and Wally’s unsentimental realism, recognising their divergent takes as being reminiscent of conversations you’ve had with yourself. An arguable minority would be those who view Wally as an unadventurous, quarrelsome killjoy who is merely attempting to undermine Andre’s rebirth, but it’s as valid an interpretation as any other. That’s part and parcel of what makes the film so special, it throws the very nature of existence in your face like a concrete block and makes room for myriad outlooks in the most substantive and engaging manner.
With a relatively minor budget and setting, it’s utterly incredible what Malle and co. achieved here. Aside from some very brief scenes of Wallace Shawn out and about in New York, the film takes place entirely inside the restaurant. The interior of the then-vacant Jefferson Hotel in Virginia was used for the central location as opposed to the actual Cafe des Artistes, but it nevertheless conveys a warm, upscale and almost otherworldly intimacy. The restaurant has few customers beyond Wally & Andre, tuxedoed waiters in their twilight years occasionally dipping in and out to keep our philosophical warrior heroes topped up on booze and grub. Everyone and everything in there is unified as part of their existence for that one night, including the people they either barely say a word to or merely extend a glance. The emotional power of proceedings is bolstered tenfold by what is essentially the film’s theme tune, Erik Satie’s fantastic piano composition Gymnopedie No. 1.
It’s an extraordinarily intelligent, dryly humorous and beautiful film. Shawn and Gregory wrote the screenplay, basing it on a composite of various real conversations they’d had throughout their long friendship, and there is trenchant authenticity in their rapport. The idea of watching two people converse for over 100 minutes may sound utterly daunting and unappealing as hell to some, but you’d genuinely be cheating yourself out of an important experience, as there are issues debated here that you are guaranteed to have pondered long and hard in your solitary moments. It completely and utterly knocked my socks off when I first saw it, and I sincerely hope it’ll do the same for you.