The new film from Jonathan Demme, A Master Builder, chronicling the latest theatrical collaboration between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, is a project you really want to work. The artists are endearing and the artistic bar high. Also, it’s a work people have been hearing about for a long, long time.
The team of avant-garde theatre director Gregory and actor-writer Shawn came to fame in Louie Malle’s great conversation movie, My Dinner with Andre (1981), in which the two men played versions of themselves as a modern-day Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with Gregory’s anguished intellectual adventures contrasted with Shawn’s comic earthbound pragmatism.
The early eighties’ Manhattan-loving movie-going public embraced them: In Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest’s theatre-besotted character, Corky St. Clair, is the proud owner of My Dinner with Andre action figures.
Gregory and Shawn collaborated again on Malle’s last film, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), documenting the results of Gregory’s four-year-long workshop of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, starring Shawn and Julianne Moore, an elegant demonstration of Chekhov’s continuing bittersweet relevance.
Gregory is now 80, Shawn 70, and A Master Builder is the result of 14 years of rehearsals and private performances, based on a new translation (by Shawn) of Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 personal play, The Master Builder, about an older established artist riddled with guilt and self-doubt, whose muses and demons are indistinguishable.
The most significant innovation in Shawn’s contemporary-set adaptation (apart from changing the article from the definite “The” to the indefinite “A”), is to provide Ibsen’s drama with a framing device.
What we see is presented not as the literal experience, but a death-bed reverie by Halvard Solness (Shawn). We first meet him when he is on a cot, strapped to a heart monitor, apparently resting at home in the aftermath of a heart attack. As the play makes a transition into Ibsen’s drama, Solness seems to get better, the occasional beeping of a monitor in the background bleating out the last hours of his life.
That intriguing innovation aside, Gregory and Shawn’s artistic lightning does not strike a third time. A Master Builder really doesn’t work, hampered by odd casting, theatrical performances and a reductive interpretation of Ibsen’s play.
To a large degree, the problem rests with the casting of Shawn as Solness, a “master builder” who used to create churches and now does private homes with fancy spires. Solness is tormented by superstitions that his opportunities have been built on others’ miseries, including a fire that burned down his wife’s family home, killing their two infant sons – but allowed Solness the opportunity to build the houses that made him famous. While Shawn communicates the fearful, petty and conniving side of the acclaimed builder, there’s no sense of a complex inner life, never mind a sense of failing tragic grandeur.
Years before, Solness worked for another architect, Knut Brovik (played here in one scene by Gregory) who is dying. Brovik’s last wish is that Solness give his son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl) a break, allowing him to design his own building. Instead, the jealous Solness keeps Ragnar, who’s his employee, under his thumb, while having an affair with the man’s fiancé, Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell) who works as Solness’s bookkeeper. The secondary characters here, including Biehl, McDonnell and Broadway veteran Larry Pine as Solness’s doctor, are all more grounded and credible than the major turns.
The relationship is endured by Solness’s neurotic wife, Aline (a mannered Julie Hagerty). Her jealousy is ratcheted up several notches with the arrival of a brash young woman, Hilde (Lisa Joyce), in tight white shorts, who flounces into their home, claims an earlier relationship with Solness, and asks to stay the night.
When Hilde is alone with him, she reminds Solness that years ago he made some sort of pass at her and emotionally seduced her, when she was just 12. For the past decade, she has been convinced they are soulmates and he will sweep her away. She is astonished he appears not to remember the event or even her name.
What exactly happened 10 years before between the celebrated architect and the child is not spelled out, which provides a useful tension. On the other hand, in the long wordy exchanges between the two characters, not much else is revealed either.
As played by Joyce, Hilde is obviously deranged, given to manic peals of laughter. Shawn’s beaming grin and enthusiastic nodding indicates he’s entranced by her presence, while his wife, Alina, is increasingly driven into her neurotic caricature. We can understand why Alina stays around – her character is defined by her sense of obligation – it’s hard to credit how this shell of a man inspires romantic devotion from both Hilde and his bookkeeper.
Director Jonathan Demme’s flat, back-and-forth hand-held camera work is merely serviceable and there are too many uncomfortable closeups for the theatrical performances.
Occasional external shots of the spacious New York private club where the drama is staged provide no illumination or respite from the fretful chatter within.