A Master Builder

A Master Builder
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn (based on the play The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen)
Stars: Wallace Shawn (Halvard Solness), Julie Hagerty (Aline Solness), Lisa Joyce (Hilde Wangel), Larry Pine (Dr. Herdal), André Gregory (Knut Brovik), Emily Cass McDonnell (Kaia Fosli), Jeff Biehl (Ragnar Brovik), Joanna Howard (Nurse Nora)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2014
Country: U.S.
A Master Builder Criterion Collection DVD
A Master BuilderIn adapting Henrik Ibsen’s confounding 1892 play The Master Builder (subtly retitled A Master Builder), playwright/actor Wallace Shawn and theater director/actor André Gregory place the story where it probably always should have been set: in the fever dream of a dying man in his last seconds of life. According to Shawn in the “Afterword” of his new translation of the play, Gregory had “always felt that the play was about a man’s confrontation with himself as he approaches death,” and Shawn simply made that literal by placing the protagonist, an egotistical yet deeply fearful architect named Halvard Solness, on his deathbed. That change affects virtually everything about the play, as nearly three-quarters of the action now transpires in Solness’s subconscious and one major character becomes not a girl of flesh and blood, but a psychological projection who confronts Solness and essentially forces him to come to terms with the life he has led. This approach feels more natural in the way it accepts the play’s odd, dreamlike structure, which was always in conflict with the typically realistic way it has been staged.

As portrayed by Shawn, Solness is a controlling, petty little man who works primarily out of fear, a crucial crack in his seemingly omnipotent power over those around him. The film’s working title Fear of Falling reflects both Solness’s acrophobia and, more importantly, the guiding principle of his life, which is the fear that others will surpass him. Solness has ascended to the heights of his profession primarily by climbing over and using others, including Knut Brovik (Gregory), the mentor whom he early surpassed and put into his service, and Brovik’s son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), who has great talent as an architect but is constantly dissuaded by Solness out of fear that he will do to him exactly what Solness did to Ragnar’s father years earlier. Solness also manipulates Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell), Ragnar’s fiancée, who works as his bookkeeper. Solness knows that if she and Ragnar were to ever get married, she would leave his employ and help Ragnar start his own rival firm, and there are clear intimations that Solness’s grip on her is both professional and sexual. It is no wonder, then, that Solness’s stern, cold wife Aline (Julie Hagerty) bristles at the mere sight of Kaia, although, like the others, she falls in line, following Solness’s every whim because she believes it is her obligation.

On his deathbed, Solness confides to the family doctor (Larry Pine) that he believes he is capable of wishing things into existence, hence his immense success and the decline of those around him. His attainment of the title “master builder” has come not only at the expense of others, but also via coincidences and strokes of luck, not to mention tragedies from which he has profited, such as the burning of his wife’s family estate. Yet, even at the edge of death, Solness still feels the nipping at his heels and resists the possibility of being usurped by the next generation. In fact, it is when he expounds his greatest fear—“The younger generation will just show up one day and knock on the door”—that the film enters his subconscious, visually shifting to a wider aspect ratio and recalibrating the characters so that Solness no longer appears to be at death’s door.

And it is at that moment that there is a literal knock on the door and in strides Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a mysterious young white-clad woman with a shock of curly hair, a mesmerizing baby face, and an air of casual comfort. She claims she is visiting Solness’s small town and that she knows both him and the doctor. Solness plays along, and soon he is inviting her to stay at the house and they become deeply engrossed in conversation, the intimacy of which is startling in both its intensity and its immediacy. Hilde begins telling the story of when and where she met Solness 10 years earlier, an event that he does not remember without her prompting. It is a disturbing tale involving his opening a new building in her town, coming to her house for tea, and attempting to seduce her when she was only 12 years old.

Solness initially resists but eventually accepts this recounting, and it turns out to be only the beginning of a series of intense interpersonal encounters in which Hilde draws out the threads of his life, sometimes confronting him with his sins, sometimes encouraging him to be a better man. Her role is clearly that of provocateur, and she goes about it in a manner that shifts suddenly from flirtation to confrontation, friendly consolation to condemnation. Her power is in her indefinability, which is greatly enhanced by her innocent, girlish appearance and her penchant for exploding into sudden laughter. At times she feels like she is a child, but then she is like a wizened sage or a seasoned interrogator. Lisa Joyce, a relative newcomer to film with a strong history on the stage, is a revelation in the role, and her interplay with Shawn, shot mostly in tight close-ups, draws us directly into the drama such that we can feel their breath and sense their body heat.

This is the second time that Gregory and Shaw have adapted a great play for the screen, their previous effort being Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that was directed by Louis Malle, who had first directed them together in My Dinner With Andre (1994). Malle passed away in 1995, so a third collaboration was impossible; instead Gregory and Shaw turned to Jonathan Demme, an Oscar winner with an impressive track record of mixing boundary-pushing Hollywood genre fare (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) with memorable stage recordings, including the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984) and the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Demme employs the same aesthetic he used in Rachel Getting Married (2008), relying almost entirely on shifty handheld cameras and tight, almost invasive close-ups that put us right into the characters’ physical space. The closeness of the camera works marvelously, but the rest of Demme’s aesthetic feels too mannered and attention-seeking, especially his use of sudden, sometimes inexplicable zooms.

However, although A Master Builder is branded “A Jonathan Demme Picture,” it really belongs more to Shawn and Gregory. In making a cinematic adaption of an Ibsen play, they have, in a sense, come full circle in their unique, nearly five-decade artistic partnership. Shawn had been toiling as an unnoticed playwright in the late 1960s when Gregory expressed interest in his work and hired him to adapt Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (Shawn could never figure out a way to whittle the epic down to a manageable length, so he wrote Our Late Night, a new play for Gregory’s company, instead, which became his first produced play). In the mid-1990s Shawn began working on a new translation of The Master Builder (even though he did not speak Norwegian), and when he completed it in 1997, he accepted the role of Solness and Gregory’s company began rehearsing it. From 1997 to 2012 they worked on the play, with only Shawn, Julie Hagerty, and Larry Pine sticking it out all 14 years.

Thus, the filmed version has the same intensely lived-in quality we saw in Vanya on 42nd Street, which was similarly the result of a years-long rehearsal process, although A Master Builder lacks that film’s affecting self-consciousness. It is designed to shed stagebound conventions, and Demme opens it up nicely by setting the action in multiple rooms throughout Solness’s house (which doubles as his subconscious) and giving us exterior shots that remind us of the world from which so many of the characters are closed off. It’s a beautifully shot film, and even if it doesn’t always work perfectly, it is never anything less than engrossing and perplexing, usually in equal measure.

A Master Budiler Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films Blu-ray Box SetA Master Builder is available as a stand-alone Blu-ray or in the three-disc box set “André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films” (SRP: $99.95), which also includes My Dinner With Andre (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 / 2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD 5.1 surround
  • Subtitles English
  • Video interview with director Jonathan Demme, stage director/actor André Gregory, and writer/actor Wallace Shawn, conducted by film critic David Edelstein
  • Video conversation between actors Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce
  • Program featuring Gregory, Shawn, and their friend the author Fran Lebowitz in conversation
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film critic Michael Sragow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 16, 2015

    A Master Builder was shot entirely in 2K video on an Arri Alexa and a Sony XDCAM PMW-EX3 and completed in a digital workflow. The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray was taken directly from the DPX high-definition digital master and color-corrected under the supervision of director of photography Declan Quinn. The image is generally beautiful, with excellent definition, color, and contrast. The sunlight that pours through open windows is particularly gorgeous, although some of the close-ups (likely the ones shot with the Sony XDCAM) betray their digital source a bit too much (for my taste, anyway). Regardless, Criterion’s image is an accurate representation of the film’s intended look. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files, and it sounds great. Dialogue is smooth and clear, and the musical score, which mixes conventional orchestrations with eerie electronica, is effectively disquieting.
    There are nearly two hours of interviews included on Criterion’s Blu-ray. First up is a half-hour discussion of the film with Jonathan Demme, André Gregory, and Wallace Shawn led by film critic David Edelstein. Next we have a 33-minute conversation between Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce, who clearly developed a strong relationship working together and offer a great of insight into their characters. And finally there is 52-minute conversation featuring Gregory, Shawn, and their friend, author Fran Lebowitz. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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