Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Master Builder

“I would like to tell you a very strange story—I mean, if you’d be willing to listen to it,” title character Halvard Solness (Wallace Shawn) says in A Master Builder, a production headed by Shawn (who wrote the screenplay from his own translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play) and his longtime collaborator Andre Gregory (who adapted it for the stage and plays another of the main roles), with the help of Jonathan Demme, who the two recruited to direct. Halvard’s line, which could easily have come from either of the two old friends’ other films, is spoken early enough to feed our hopes that A Master Builder will follow in the nimble footsteps of My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, deftly exploring human nature and the nature of language—both the stories we tell and the things we leave unspoken. Unfortunately, this film is as flatfooted as the others are agile.

A dying man (though he is temporarily revived by a surprise visit from a young woman he first met ten years earlier), Halvard is trying to exorcise his guilt for a lifetime of maintaining his top-dog status at the expense of everyone close to him. Demme is almost always better at making documentaries than fiction films, and this one is no exception. While director Louis Malle made a conversation between two men in a restaurant visually interesting in My Dinner with Andre, using unobtrusive but effective framing devices like a shot of Gregory’s reflection in a mirror behind Shawn as Shawn talked and working in their waiter’s disapproving face so often that he became a kind of silent Greek chorus, the camerawork here starts out with sometimes dizzyingly shaky handheld footage and then settles into a tedious pattern of shot-reverse shot as the small but constantly shifting parade of characters talk, mostly in pairs. The actors—particularly the three leads (Shawn, Hagerty and Lisa Joyce as Hilda Wangel, the young woman) emote in an emphatic, exaggerated style, as if the script were written in big block letters. Heavy-handed symbolism, like the towers Halvard loves to build and the three empty bedrooms he and his wife maintain for the children they never had, make things feel all the more clunkily expository.

The best parts of the film are the ones that retain some mystery. The character of Hilda remains ambiguous. After reviving Halvard miraculously just after he has gone into what looks like cardiac arrest, she seesaws between trembling or cackling near-hysteria and the self-confidence of a wise old soul. Is she a hallucination, cooked up by Halvard’s dying brain as a kind of photogenic life review guide? Or is she a real, probably unbalanced young woman, there to make sure Halvard gets his karmic desserts for having casually seduced and abandoned her when she was 12?

She may be as ripe and juicy as a new-fallen pear, but she’s intriguingly disturbing, part puppet master, part naïve young innocent/victim, and part Angel of Death.

Written for The L Magazine

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