Jonathan Demme Takes on Henrik Ibsen in ‘A Master Builder’

The crux of the plot lies in Solness’ state of mind, bothered by a material abundance he fears is unearned, and thus infinitely fragile, liable to be withdrawn as arbitrarily as it was given.

In A Master Builder, Jonathan Demme marshals time (more than a decade of rehearsal and performance) and talent (Wallace Shawn, André Gregory, and Lisa Joyce). Fans of Shawn and Gregory’s previous collaborations may anticipate a movie filled with talk, while Demme aficionados may anticipate visual invention.

It turns out that their adaptation of Ibsen’s play (1893) is neither filmed performance nor free-flowing movie, yet it harbors the disadvantages of both. Opening in theaters across the US throughout the summer and fall, A Master Builder does indeed capture the foreboding of the soul no longer confident in the favor of God (or Fate, or Chance). But it does so in spite of inconsistent acting circumscribed by tight close-ups and conventional editing choices, a lack of imagination introduced by unmotivated camera movement through domestic interiors.

The play meditates on the end of Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn), a master builder who has constructed his success on the defeats of others, including his wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), former mentor Knut (André Gregory), and the apprentice, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), whom he refuses to release from creative bondage. Into this complacent stasis erupts Hilde (Lisa Joyce), a young and beautiful woman who may, or may not, share a decade-old history with Solness, and who simultaneously taunts and seduces him into the kind of reckless action he has long abjured.

The crux of the plot lies in Solness’ state of mind, bothered by a material abundance he fears is unearned, and thus infinitely fragile, liable to be withdrawn as arbitrarily as it was given. Yet the frequent close shots mean that viewers only see that overwhelming abundance in fleeting glimpses, and so, struggle to understand both Halvard’s almost ecstatic hubris as well as his existential doubts. When Halvard and Aline argue in their kitchen, she passionately hisses, “This isn’t a home.” For a few moments, we see the starkness of their impasse leap into focus through wide shots of their everyday domesticity, with its blue and white breakfast china, white-painted wood paneling and a kitchen table laden with fresh food.

The close-ups do accentuate the cerebral, hyper-rationalist nature of Solness’ struggles and Hilde’s seductive menace. But when Shawn and Joyce interact, they perform more as if projecting across the fourth wall to an echoing theatre than as intimate players mere feet from the camera. Their exaggerated expressions and manic laughter first alienate with their raucousness and then irritate with their repetition.

Still, the film has its pleasures, primarily as it brings to life the play’s ambiguities of time and place. Is Solness hallucinating his encounters with Hilde in the last moments of his life, as he searches for one moment that might validate his good fortune and assuage his guilt over a life he feels he has not earned? Or has that guilt driven him into madness, troubled by memories of past wrongs and achievements?

And who or what is Hilde, flesh and blood or retributive wraith? The film has her oscillating between her accusations of Solness’ sexual approaches when she was a child and her sense of betrayal that he has not claimed her as his lover. Both Shawn and Joyce, when freed from the constraints of the tight camera work, embody this uncertainty by subtle shifts in physical register. They play pupil and master in Solness’ studio. They exchange confidences as equals on a gilt-trimmed striped sofa. They mimic inquisitor and victim in front of an opened piano. They do this, at least, before the film rushes to close down such fluidity in favor of more close frames of their faces, all quivering lips and overworked eyes.

The promise of the collaboration among these eloquent artists of stage and screen remains elusive, straitjacketed by a TV-sized framing of overwrought emotion and absurdity. It may be that the spectre that most haunts A Master Builder is neither Solness nor the retribution he faces, but another movie, Charlie Kaufman’s Synedoche, New York (2008). It’s a representation of creative imagination that is so convoluted it defies translation into any medium, a lesson that might be helpful to consider here.

RATING 5 / 10
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