No, this isn’t a Waiting for Guffman–style jest. While by no means a horror film, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is in some ways the ultimate campfire tale, in which we lean forward and open our ears and minds to a persuasive, grave storyteller who’s at times seemingly bent on raising our hair. Not convinced? Then you haven’t really sat with Andre Gregory as he recounts his epic Halloween anecdote.
In inimitable hushed manner, Gregory is the ultimate yarn-spinner, talking in dulcet, yet subtly self-amused tones, leaning forward in his seat to beckon his table mate Wallace Shawn (and us) ever closer. Gregory says a lot in the course of his epic Upper East Side restaurant conversation with Shawn; so much that it often feels more like a monologue—fitting for a theater director, perhaps. But of all the choice, exotic experiences this garrulous, birdlike man assaults his companion’s ears with, perhaps none made more impact on this viewer than his relation of his Halloween night on moonlit Montauk. Ever the name-dropper, Gregory casually mentions that this gathering of nine or so people (“mostly men,” he emphasizes) took place at the wilderness surrounding the home of Dick Avedon there at the tip of Long Island, which he describes as “like Heathcliff’s property.” Surely, Gregory must been in the same New York art circles as iconic Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and New Yorker photographer Avedon, and My Dinner with Andre, borne out of Gregory’s real experiences trying to find the spiritual in his life, was certainly partly autobiographical, so is the following story true?
It seems too fanciful (and elaborately terrifying) to be so, but Gregory paints it with such vivid, frank passion that I choose to assume that it did happen. For four minutes—in an unbroken shot—Gregory is nearly shaking as he describes his tale. This is no mere pumpkin carving party: the gathering of invitees (presumably of the Manhattan art and theater elite) found that over the course of a few nights, three of their party kept disappearing, and that it soon became clear that something grand was in the works. Finally, at midnight on Halloween (or, as Gregory also calls it, “All Souls Eve”), the remaining guests were beckoned to a cliff, naturally “under a fill moon.” From there, Gregory explains, his voice slowing and lowering with quivering, dramatic flair, they were led to the basement of a burned-down house near the property. Inside, a table had been prepared, laid out with papers, pencils, and wine; here they were ordered by their hosts to write down their last testaments. It’s clear that this Halloween celebration was intended as a confrontation with death.
Soon Gregory is blindfolded, then brought to a room filled with a harsh white light, where he is laid out on a table, naked and sponged, before being led at a brisk pace, sightless, through the cold, still forest. The inevitable comes: he is put on stretcher and lowered into the ground into one of six freshly dug, eight-foot deep graves, his valuables placed on his body, wood covering him, dirt shoveled on top. Then, the point—the resurrection, the release from the earth, the catharsis, the bonfire where everyone was reunited and danced till dawn.
Gregory’s need to be nearly buried alive and reborn is of course just one of many examples of his own maddening narcissism, his unending quest for enlightenment and cleansing rituals (which also took him to the forests of Poland with an experimental theater director, the Sahara with a Tibetan Buddhist monk, to Scotland, to Belgrade). The narrative is chilling, both in its details and its implications about Gregory. From the way he summons them with such sinister skill, Gregory clearly knows his exploits at Montauk ultimately amount to nothing more than a good spook tale. (And how else should Shawn—and we—respond than with a quizzical stare? When Malle finally cuts away from Gregory’s closeup, we can see Shawn’s bemused profile) “I really feel that everything I’ve done is horrific,” Gregory soon states with ease, and while it’s hard to see this statement as anything more than attention-seeking and a form of self-aggrandizement, the impresario’s confessed need to debase himself, body and soul, resonates. There’s a dreadful power to his scary story that hangs over the rest of the film.
Almost immediately after, the quails are served, their little legs sticking straight up. Of course we can’t help but think of Andre on his death slab.