by Matt Levine
I remember seeing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, originally written in 1879, performed in Milwaukee many years ago. The classic proto-feminist play, in which a woman named Nora ultimately decides to leave her husband and children in order to find her own happiness and purpose for being, seemed the kind of artwork peculiar to its own time period: there’s no doubt it’s daring and powerfully written, but it is also bluntly symbolic and overly literal in the evocation of its themes, with most of its ideas crudely spelled out for the audience in long dialogues. Jonathan Demme’s new film A Master Builder, a filmed version of Ibsen’s 1892 play Bygmester Solness, makes almost zero attempt to update the action or “open it up” to a cinematic treatment—a decision that is both courageous and detrimental.
Director: Jonathan Demme
Producers: Rocco Caruso, Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn
Writers: Wallace Shawn, Henrik Ibsen (play)
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Editor: Tim Squyres
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce, Larry Pine, Andre Gregory, Jeff Biehl, Emily Cass McDonnell
Premiere: November 11, 2013 — Rome Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 23, 2014
US Distributor: Abramorama
Wallace Shawn (who also wrote the screenplay) stars as the Master Builder himself, Halvard Solness, an esteemed architect on his deathbed and supposedly suffering from mental illness. Solness built his career on a tragedy that nearly destroyed his wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty)—a fire that burned down her family’s home, leading Halvard to rebuild it as an opulent mansion. The tragedy so depressed her that it made her unable to produce milk, ultimately leading to the death of the Solness’ infant twin boys. Since then, Halvard has used manipulation and egomania as tools for preserving his clout. He fiercely outbuilds his main competitor, Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory), and pressures Knut’s son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) to work for him by also employing Ragnar’s fickle fiancée, Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell). The metaphor is obvious, but it’s also repeatedly literalized by the dialogue: Halvard may be brilliant at building ornate, opulent churches and homes, but his own personal life has been constructed out of jealousy and cruelty.
Halvard's cold, self-absorbed tyranny is weakened by the arrival of young Hilda Wongle (Lisa Joyce), who shows up wearing white short shorts, knee-high stockings, and a spring-colored scarf—almost a parody of nubile sexuality. Clearly in awe of Solness, she tells him the story of the time when he arrived in her small town to build a cathedral, then on the day of its completion climbed to the top of the scaffolding in order to lay the ceremonial wreath. Gradually, she also reveals that Halvard came upon her alone at a banquet hosted by her family, charmed her by promising her “castles in the sky,” and began kissing her passionately despite the fact that she was only twelve years old. (This is one moment when the dialogue becomes circuitous and unclear, raising the possibility that his sexual abuse went even further.) Hilda has been in love with Halvard ever since, though her motivations and alliances become increasingly hazy as the movie progresses—especially when Hilda opens up to Halvard's long-suffering wife.
It’s possible that much of the film is either a dream or memory: we know immediately that Solness is not far from death and has already been hobbled by an incoherent mind. So perhaps Hilda is not an actual woman but an ideal totem of Solness’ once-majestic image as well as a reminder of his vile selfishness (which would make their unconvincing relationship less of a problem for the film as a whole). Indeed, the inability to know which of these scenes are actually happening and which are figments of Solness’ imagination is one of A Master Builder’s more intriguing elements: it works best as a somber meditation on a legendary artist’s final moments, overwhelmed by self-doubt and the need for redemption. Director Jonathan Demme conveys this ambiguity in a visually interesting way, as the lengthy first scene is shot in ugly digital video with a woozy handheld camera while the rest of the film is more pristine, with softer lighting and more fluid camera movements. It’s as though a messy life opens up onto a more divine world, a pathway between this life and something more celestial (where Solness has promised to build Hilda those castles in the sky).
A Master Builder is an intelligent, provocative movie, but it’s something to be appreciated rather than experienced. The filmmakers clearly hope to retain the essence and the letter of Ibsen’s original—this is obvious even from the characters’ names, which are not changed from the Norwegian original—and the result is an anachronistic tone that’s partially admirable but mostly aloof. The outdated gender politics are obvious in a scene in which Halvard admits that his wife Aline also had great, unused talent…for raising children. This scene could have demarcated the immense rift between Solness and his wife, but it reads as surprisingly straightforward, like some of the other outdated dialogue. The longwinded conversations in posh, claustrophobic chambers emphasize the pitfalls of straight stage-to-screen adaptations, recalling Ingmar Bergman’s worst tendencies as a director (for example, the flat, self-obvious soliloquies of Winter Light, among others).
Wallace Shawn’s screenplay was based on an updated version of Ibsen’s play written by Andre Gregory—Shawn’s counterpart in two great theatrically-themed movies by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). Given that Gregory also plays Solness’ rival Knut, their appearance together here—and the fact that A Master Builder is dedicated to Louis Malle—suggests that the film is partially meant as a meta-textual comment on adapting theatre. Many filmmakers updating stagebound works take one of two approaches: either exaggerating a barebones, theatrical aesthetic to its most minimalist degree (like Lars von Trier’s Dogville) or opening up the action to many different settings and time periods (like Volker Schlöndorff’s Death of a Salesman). Demme decides to do neither, and while such a stagy approach does lead to a sort of hyperreal intimacy, it also makes it very difficult to care about these characters, whose suffering is explicated through verbose, actor-centric dialogues.
Given A Master Builder’s faithfulness to the text and antiquated tone (only the posh modern-day interiors prevent it from actually taking place in the 19th century), it’s the performances that make or break the film. Thankfully, they make it worth watching, especially for fans of Ibsen or classic theatre in general. As Solness, Wallace Shawn is suitably narcissistic with his piercing intensity and raspy voice, but it’s also hard to believe that three women would be battling for his sexual attentions, master builder or no. (In fact, it’s easier to imagine Andre Gregory in this role.) It’s actually the supporting performances that stay captivating throughout. As Aline, Julie Hagerty exudes a spurned bitterness that’s both pitiable and unnerving, subverting both the outdated gender roles conveyed by Ibsen’s original and the simplistic mother roles that Hagerty has played in the past. Lisa Joyce may be an even greater revelation as the beautiful, mercurial, but ultimately sympathetic Hilda; she’s asked to play a romantic archetype, a radiant image of youthful sexuality attached to a patriarchal figure, but she somehow makes a believable, tempestuous character out of her. The film’s strongest scene may be the first tender conversation between Aline and Hilda; Aline despises Hilda to start with, assuming that she’s after Halvard’s fame and fortune, but they quickly bond when Aline relates her tragic past. Eventually, Hilda becomes something of a daughter figure for Aline, reminding her of the children she was never able to raise.
A Master Builder is the kind of film that’s more poignant in memory, long after you leave the theater, than when you’re actually watching it. Sometimes this is a mark of great filmmaking, though in this case it reveals how much A Master Builder’s longwinded, crudely symbolic tone smothers the emotional potential that’s there in the story all along. Even so, the film is worth watching—a tribute to Ibsen’s austere influence that’s almost courageous in its anachronism. It’s rarely emotional, but it’s also never less than intriguing.