My Dinner with Andre and the Virtues of Discomfort
by Lily Ekimian
I had never considered buying an electric blanket before, but the other night I fell asleep with my window open (unbeknownst to me), and the thought of buying one flitted through my mind as I experienced a night as cold as any I can remember. As I tossed and turned (and grabbed socks and a jumper from my closet), my mind wandered to a part of the conversation that takes place in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). The film is essentially one long conversation between playwrights Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing themselves, at dinner in New York. At one point, Wallace tells Andre of an electric blanket he was gifted, and just how much greater his life has become as a result. “I wouldn’t put an electric blanket on for anything,” Andre replies. “I think that that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way.” He explains that if you have to pile up blankets then you know it’s cold, and that sets off its own course of thinking: is the person next to you cold? Are there other people in the world who are cold? “All sorts of things occur to you. Turn on that electric blanket,” he says, “and it’s like taking a tranquilizer.”
In a film filled with so many marvellous profundities, Andre’s argument against the electric blanket really resonated with me as I lay bundled up in the cold. But, at the same time, I was cold, simply and unpleasantly cold, and in that way, I also understood Wallace Shawn’s rejection of Andre’s way of thinking. Wallace likes his blanket because, as he puts it plainly, New York is cold in the winter. “Our lives are tough enough as it is, I’m not looking for ways to get rid of the few things that provide comfort and relief,” he says. And what’s wrong with wanting comfort? Isn’t that natural? Andre tells him that such comforts can be deadly in their ability to take you out of the real world. This argument about the blanket is perhaps the best example of the ideological differences between these two men and the types of questions that lie at the heart of the film. One of the many things that make listening to their nearly two-hour conversation so fascinating is that it is hard to agree or disagree with either of them wholly. Andre represents a deeply spiritual way of thinking, and he goes into great detail about his travels with strange, experimental theatre groups in Poland and cathartically eating handfuls of sand in the Sahara with a Buddhist monk. But Wallace is more grounded, practical, and lives in what we as viewers would like to call the “real world.”
There is a reason to admire both lifestyles, but in each, we’re also made aware of a sense of insecurity. Andre has a wife and two children that he left behind to go on his travels, and even though he seems to genuinely love his family, his choices betray a fear that domesticity is somehow insufficient. Wallace, on the other hand, is all too unwavering in his defence of a comfortable life with his girlfriend and his moderate success as a playwright; he stubbornly clings to routine, whereas Andre seems afraid of it. Both defend their own lifestyles, though both have the capacity to live as the other, and so both are effectively undermined by each other’s existence.
Andre was right in saying all sorts of things occur to you when you’re cold, and I can appreciate his point in a cosmic sort of way – after all, this article would not have been written had I not been so cold that night. Yes, there is a virtue in feeling connected to the world through something as simple as shared discomfort. But, while I may not buy an electric blanket, in the winter, I’ll be sure to keep my windows closed because, as Wallace might agree, cold is cold.