What is sometimes referred to as existential crisis or existential dread, existential depression is the feeling that life is pointless, without meaning, and that one is simply floating in a void of space without much purpose. Of course, this can be a passing moment that does not affect one’s overall outlook on life, or it can have damning effects and change the outcome of one’s future, for better or worse.
Angel Rivera, writing for Depressionalliance.org, states that, “Existential depression generally occurs in people during periods of deep reflection about the meaning of one’s life and the very purpose and meaning of existence … it can revolve around people’s concerns and attempts to make sense of four main topics: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.”
The above quote, in my opinion, has a lot to do with the point of the conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre (1981)—to explore the realization that one can have experiences and one can find meaning in life if they reject the commonality, the repetition, of life that causes us to adhere to the social constraints into which we have unwillingly been born.
It is as much a movie about existential depression and meaning as it is about two men with differing views about how to live their life, either pragmatically or spiritually. As stated, the types of existential realizations and epiphanies that are posed in the film can have both positive and negative results as it concerns one’s life. To be precise, Andre seems to have woken up from what he feels is a sort of mental stagnation and paralysis imposed on him by external powers.
This movie feels literary in its scope and that at the heart of it, it is a series of anecdotes from one person’s recent history while another person analyzes it from their own perspective. We have point of view, the oral tradition of storytelling, existentialism, and theme all grounded into a fantastic movie about finding meaning in life and not falling to intellectual zombification as a salve for existence.
Dread, crisis, and depression
On the surface, My Dinner with Andre (1981) is about a casual dinner at Café des Artistes in Manhattan between two men: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. Shawn is a playwright who has recently taken up acting to make ends meet because being a playwright has not been paying the bills. Shawn’s girlfriend in the movie, who is only introduced through his voice-over, has started waiting tables recently, because, as Shawn tells the audience, “somebody had to bring in a little money.”
Shawn narrates: “I became an actor, and people don’t hire you. So, you just spend your days doing the errands of your trade. Today, I had to be up by ten in the morning to make some important phone calls. Then, I had gone to the stationery store to buy envelopes. Then, to the Xerox shop. There were dozens of things to do.”
All of this complicates Shawn’s life and it also begins digging into the theme of existential depression, crisis even, though Shawn seems to be removed from dwelling on this psychological anxiety at the start. We as the audience get the feeling that Shawn has been doing these types of activities for a while, and there is an underlying fear in his words. He is not successful, monetarily or professionally, and that fact has negatively impacted his life.
“I’ve lived in this city all my life,” Shawn tells us. “I grew up on the Upper East Side and when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I am 36, and all I think about is money”(My Dinner With Andre)
Shawn, being in an artistically desperate moment in his life, has agreed to dinner with an old theatre colleague, Andre, whose abandoned his role as a director and engaged in bizarre escapades: Andre now talks to trees and, at one point, was found weeping near an old building in the city due to the impact of a quote from Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978):
“I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
In response, Shawn tells us:
He dropped out of the theater. He sort of disappeared … Obviously, something terrible had happened to Andre” (My Dinner with Andre).
The two meet for dinner and Andre shares fantastic stories of his travels and the peculiar acts in which he engaged (in one story, he claims to have been buried alive, and Andre’s quivering voice guides the audience through the often-dark tone of the film). Meanwhile, Shawn listens politely, apparently untaken with the spiritual nature of the conversation.
Andre’s penchant for experimentalism in all aspects of his existence has changed the way he views the world, and thus the existential depression of the movie becomes visible as Andre questions what it means to experience art, and for that matter, life, and why complacency, as he tells Shawn, has created a willingness in humans to live an unfeeling life. Andre opens more as the movie progresses and he tells Wallace about the existential realization that began his journey into understanding his role as a human.
“I mean, it’s a very frightening thing, Wally, to have to suddenly realize, that, my God, I thought I was living my life, but in fact I haven’t been a human being. I’ve been a performer. I haven’t been living, I’ve been acting. I’ve acted the role of the father. I’ve acted the role of the husband. I’ve acted the role of the friend. I’ve acted the role of the writer, or director, or what have you. I’ve lived in the same room with this person, but I haven’t really seen them. I haven’t really heard them. I haven’t really been with them” (My Dinner with Andre).
Andre tells Wally and the audience that as humans we are more than just husks walking through life, eating and procreating; rather, we are thinking creatures who learn and relate through experience, whether that be through dancing in Poland or putting on plays in the Sahara. What is the meaning to life? According to Andre, it very well might be the act of experiencing life through interaction rather than just going through the motions like a programmed system.
“I mean, things don’t affect people the way they used to,” he says. “I mean, it may very well be that 10 years from now, people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something” (My Dinner with Andre).
Existential Depression in the New Age
The existential dread of this film is palpable, from Andre’s musings about life and Shawn’s attempts at arguing a more grounded existence. And I think by its conclusion, Andre lays out many good arguments about how society has zombified so many aspects of life and experience for the sake of comfort and contentment. There is an instance where Andre asks Shawn about the effects of cutting oneself off from the seasons in favor of a life indoors. It is one of those silly spiritualistic questions that seems disingenuous, but it creates an interesting thread for discussion.
“I mean, what does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons, or winter, or cold don’t in any way affect us? I mean, we’re animals, after all. I mean, what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making” (My Dinner with Andre).
Director of My Dinner with Andre (1981) Louis Malle’s own words suit the intent of the film, I think. Malle, in speaking with documentary filmmaker George Hickenlooper during an interview in 1991, answered a question about whether he would ever return to Hollywood to make a movie. He responds as such:
“It’s funny, you know, because I’ve made a film about Calcutta, which is a city of physical and economic despair. And I’ve often thought of making a film about Los Angeles, another city of despair—obviously not economic or material despair, but rather a spiritual and ethical despair which stems from lifestyles saturated by popular culture. Los Angeles has its own mini-culture that has grown to serve as the rhetoric for the rest of the industrial world.”
He goes on:
“American popular culture really comes from here … –movies, television, commercials, music—comes from Los Angeles. Not only popular culture, but a whole way of life—this obsession with health, for example—all that stuff comes from here. I think people in this town are mutants. They’re a different species.”
For me, and how this relates to the central conceit of My Dinner with Andre (1981), is that this adoption of the norms and mores of society (what comes out of Los Angeles maybe, or heating blankets for comfort) is a poison that we should mitigate if we are going to truly live a life that has value. That is, because existential depression comes from a paralysis of the soul, when we are at our most unsure about why we get out of bed in the morning, having experiences may give us the surety we need to continue living meaningfully.
I cannot be the only one that feels the existential dread of looking at vapid advertisements or vacuous influencers on social media and not remembering why it is that I go to work every day and for what reason.
Like Andre says: “Because you have to learn now. It didn’t used to be necessary, but today you have to learn something … are you really hungry or are you just stuffing your face because that’s what you do out of habit?” (My Dinner with Andre).
In other words, we must examine every action and every drive in our own lives to understand ourselves better and to give value to those actions. Mindless repetition, in this instance, is a death sentence, because we are not giving thought to why we are performing those repeated actions, and thus existential depression sets in and we look longingly into the void for answers where none can be found.
One statement from Andre that keeps coming back—the one that made me think about my own role in this world—is something Andre declares about waking up from his prolonged sleepwalking, no longer an android casualty of technology, comfort, and complacency:
“I mean, we’re just walking around in some kind of fog,” Andre says. “I think we’re all in a trance. We’re walking around like zombies, I don’t…I don’t think we’re even aware of ourselves or our own reaction to things, we…we’re just going around all day like unconscious machines and meanwhile there’s all of this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us” (My Dinner with Andre).
I do not think my interpretation perverts the purpose of the film, and, to that end, I could not help but ask myself a million questions as I watched: questions about social media, my own substance habits (alcohol), and my relationships with both my wife and family.
I think, to fight existential depression, you must do as Andre says, and actively participate in your own life. You must fight the feeling to turn on autopilot and the feeling to regress to the imaginary world of undefined goals and objectives that ultimately stand in opposition to reality. Questioning purpose happens when you feel as though you have no purpose, but it also happens when you are able to experience the world around you in a real and tangible way that creates thoughtful reflection.
Hickenlooper, George, and LOUIS MALLE. “My Discussion With Louis: AN INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS MALLE.” Cinéaste, vol. 18, no. 2, 1991, pp. 12–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41687809. Accessed 26 May 2021.
My Dinner with Andre. Louis Malle. New Yorker Films,1981. Film.
Rivera, Angel. “Eistential Depression: The Mental Illness of the Gifted & Talented.” Depressionaalliance.org. 2021. URL: https://www.depressionalliance.org/existential-depression/. Accessed on: May 25, 2021.