I consider myself to be a pretty cultured person. Part of being cultured means being aware of a many artists, even if you’ve not seen, heard, or read their work. It can also mean knowing when to admit that you just don’t understand something. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the films of Louis Malle or the plays of Henrik Ibsen, I would have had a greater appreciation for the film adaptation of A Master Builder instead of finding it to be a tedious slog.
Wallace Shawn, who also adapted the play here, stars as Solness, a well regarded architect. The film begins with him on his deathbed and we quickly learn that the success in his professional life hasn’t extended to his personal one. To stay at the top he has had to keep friends and colleagues in a firm place of subordination, and his relationship with his wife (Julie Hagerty) isn’t much better. Once this is established, the rest is some kind of hallucination that barely makes any sense. Shawn is going for a “witty, mystical and psychologically complex interpretation of Ibsen’s philosophical thriller,” but he either tries too hard or not hard enough and misses all of the above marks, grazing by them with such a faithfulness to the source material that it forgets to make you care about any of the themes that are being introduced.
The second act introduces Hilde (Lisa Joyce), a young woman who has an uplifting effect on Solness, literally rousing him from his deathbed. I presume she is supposed to have a similar effect on the audience, but her constant tears and nervous laughter aren’t pleasant. She’s likely meant to be a figment of Solness’ imagination, he instantly adopts a relationship that’s both paternal and sexual with the stranger. By the end, she’s as much the protagonist as he is, but Joyce is either miscast or misdirected. The more we see of her, the more distant the semi interesting characters from the first act felt.
The film isn’t directed by Malle (who died in 1995), but it does reunite his previous collaborators Andre Gregory and Shawn who wrote and acted in two of his most highly regarded films: My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. This time Jonathan Demme has stepped in to direct and has dedicated the film to Malle. Whether or not the result was intended to be elitist or dependent on being familiar with the other films, I can’t say, but that’s certainly how it felt.
While it does have its cinematic elements, this is primarily a filmed stage play, a format I’m often quite fond of since it usually allows for dialogue and performances to shine. Unfortunately, the actors are set up for failure when the dialogue lacks perceivable motivation in terms of direction and context. In true Demme fashion, most of the ‘story’ is told through close-ups, an effect that can’t be achieved on stage but becomes visually uninteresting when you don’t have the intensity of the relationships like those in Demme’s Silence of the Lambs or Rachel Getting Married. This feels more like an early film in a director’s career rather than one coming from an award winning veteran.
Scenes are constantly doing 180 degree turns between dramatic and comedic attempt and achieving so little of each that it becomes unclear what the intent is. Perhaps the 15 years of rehearsals and workshop productions that went into this ultimately had an adverse effect on the material. Maybe something was lost in translation, or maybe I just didn’t get it at all. I did find myself more than once thinking about how I’d rather be watching the cast in some of their classic roles like The Princess Bride and Airplane!, so maybe I’m just not that cultured after all. Or maybe those are just better made movies.