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Film Review: A Master Builder

By Dante A. Ciampaglia
August 1, 2014
A Master Builder
Photo © Declan Quinn, courtesy Abramorama
Wallace Shawn as Halvard Solness in A Master Builder.

The cinematic partnership between Wallace Shawn and André Gregory—actors, writers, and renaissance men—spans 34 years and includes two classics: My Dinner with André (1980) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). Their third collaboration, A Master Builder, was released in cinemas in July and is currently playing at Film Forum in New York through August 5. And where the previous two films were masterpieces of a kind of anti-cinema, merging cinematography and stagecraft to find the sublime in the mundane, their latest film is despairingly straight and unambitious.

A Master Builder
Photo © Bob Vergara, courtesy of Abramorama
Lisa Joyce (left) as Hilde Wangel with Julie Hagerty as Aline Solness in A Master Builder.

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A Master Builder began on the stage as Shawn and Gregory’s take on Henrik Ibsen’s late-career play Bygmester Solness (1892), a spare, creaky drama about what we would now call a starchitect. (Shawn translated the play and Gregory produced it.) Halvard Solness (Shawn), the Master Builder, once designed grand churches with impossible towers; now, after personal tragedy and wracked with existential guilt, he’s focused on “homes for people to live in.” A good elevator pitch, but one that ignores his rampaging ego and reptilian machinations that ruined his mentor, Brovik (Gregory); holds down Brovik’s son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl); toys with Ragnar’s fiancé (and Solness’ bookkeeper), Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell); and keeps his wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), in an emotional prison. Only when the young, mysterious (and possibly divine) Hilde (Lisa Joyce) appears at the Solness home does Halvard discover something akin to empathy and humanity.

Shawn and Gregory’s interpretation faithfully follows the source, except in a key way: It inverts Ibsen, framing things around Halvard’s imminent physical demise rather than the internal malaise eating away at him. This pays off on screen, albeit as a gimmick, when director Jonathan Demme flips between the grainy, claustrophobic digital of the opening minutes when Halvard is connected to machines, and the opulent, crisp widescreen of the rest of the film when Hilde arrives. This is meant to indicate we’ve gone internal (of course the Master Builder’s reality would be an unordered mess and his psyche palatial), but Demme never does anything with it. Instead, like most of A Master Builder, the formal shift just sits there.

Indeed, this is a static film. There is some movement—people walk from one room to another, Demme jiggles the camera a bit—but otherwise A Master Builder is far too stagey. Shawn and Gregory’s previous two films were both directed by legendary auteur Louis Malle, who died in 1995 (Vanya was his final film), and his presence is missed here. A Master Builder is dedicated to Malle, and Demme has moments where he taps into Malle’s sensibility. (The scene between Hilde and Aline near the end of the film is particularly beautiful and heartbreaking.) But otherwise, Demme is grasping at an imitation.

That said, Demme is savvy enough to know when to let Shawn and Gregory run the show. Gregory has only one scene at the start of the film, but what he’s able to do with his craggy, life-worn face as it undulates between magnanimity, despair, self-pity, sadness, anger, and resignation is miraculous. Not to be outdone, Shawn’s capacity to screw up his features into seething incredulity and disdain in one moment, then lascivious conspiracy the next, with nothing more than a shift of his eyes, is an acting master class.

If for no other reason, A Master Builder is worth seeing to watch Shawn at the height of his abilities. Unquestionably, he’s perfectly suited for Halvard. Whether he’s hissing out invective on his deathbed or bounding with wonder and enthusiasm after Hilde’s arrival, Shawn is clearly invigorated by the role. And his enthusiasm brings the best out of the actors around him. (Hagerty, especially, is a revelation.)

In the end, though, A Master Builder never matches the energy the actors bring to it. I get the feeling this would have been an incredible, energetic production on stage. On screen, though, it’s a lifeless bore, sorely missing the creativity of their past cinematic collaborations.

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