Now here’s a weird one. For decades Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory formed a unique theatrical partnership bridging the gap between classical theater and contemporary human behavior. Their projects stretch out for years of experimentation that transform through constant performance and two were previously committed to a singular film via Louis Malle (My Dinner With Andre and Vanya On 42nd Street). Their most recent project took 12 years to come to fruition: an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, which they only ever performed for small gatherings of friends in apartments and art galleries. When the time came to turn it into a film, Jonathan Demme was tapped as the late Malle’s replacement and the result is A Master Builder (the slight title change is deliberate and significant). The film is alternatingly fascinating and maddening, yet undeniably a unique achievement. The type of thing that deserves a spot in the Criterion Collection and guess what? It happened.
Wallace Shawn stars as the egomaniacal architect at the center of it all and in the boldest change that Shawn made in his translation of Ipsen’s text, breaks the film down into deathbed reality and some strange combination hallucination, dream, and flashback that justifies the plays strange sense of surrealism. In the opening scenes, Shawn lays in a bed awaiting death while doted on by his former boss (Andre Gregory), that man’s budding architect son (Jeff Biehl), and a meek secretary (Emily McDonnell). At the moment Shawn appears to pass, a mysterious young woman appears (Lisa Joyce) who seems to revitalize Shawn instantly. She claims that they met when she was 12 and Shawn made an inappropriate sexual advance on her, promising to give her a kingdom in a decade. She’s now returned to claim the prize and gently teases out all his dreams and desires and fantasies. She forces him to discuss how he was responsible for the death of his twin children and how he manipulated himself to success throughout his career. Throughout it all, the great Julie Hagerty walks in and out as Shawn’s endlessly put upon wife, who seems to resent and love her husband in equal measure.
So what’s it all mean? Well, the easy answer is that old “it’s open to interpretation” chestnut, but the truth is a little more complicated. It’s about death and also the way an artist tends to destroy the lives of those around them in service of a life’s work. It could be a dream about these themes or Joyce’s character might literally be Death forcing Shawn to confront the pains and joys of his life before disappearing. The truth of the matter is that Shawn and Gregory stumbled onto these fuzzy truths of Ibsen’s notoriously difficult play through years of work and likely were convinced the play was about a variety of different things at different times. The film represents the culmination of that work and those interpretations for better or worse. It’s certainly a powerful piece as well as a moving and morbidly funny one carried on the backs of a collection of extraordinary performances. As a film, Demme wisely doesn’t impose too much of himself onto a project that already had three authors in Shawn, Gregory, and Ibsen. He shoots in the fidgety handheld style he developed in Rachel Getting Married to favor the performances and it’s a wise choice. That gives the work a level of intimacy necessary for a very theatrical piece. At the same time, the filmmaker is a master of mood and he lends a certain eeriness to the proceedings that feeds the nightmarish qualities inherent in the piece, while also offering his usual loving humanism to force the audience to fall for every character. Short of raising Louis Malle from the dead, Demme was the perfect choice for the film as he’s a master of imparting his own voice onto a film while also giving himself over to the material.
Given that it was shot entirely in a single house, A Master Builder isn’t exactly an obvious showcase for Blu-ray. However, since Demme loves to focus on close-ups, the pristine HD transfer provided by Criterion gives audiences an almost uncomfortable sense of intimacy with the collection of expressive faces. It’s definitely a pretty looking disc, even if there isn’t a single vista or explosion in the running time. The special feature section is limited to three interviews, but damnit they are good. First up comes an interview with Gregory, Shawn, and Demme outlining the long strange history of the play and film that offers a great deal of insights for those interested in film/theater production and a few answers for dummies somewhat confused by the piece like myself. Hagerty and Joyce also sit down for a separate interview about their involvement in the project, which provides an interesting perspective or working through this uniquely long project as performers as well as highlighting the complex portrayal of women in the film. Finally, Fran Lebowitz sits down for an hour long chat with Shawn and Gregory about their long career that’s just as richly entertaining and dripping in self-effacing New York intellectualism as you’d hope. Overall, this is an excellent Blu-ray presentation of a complex film by the premiere company that provides such things. Yep, it’s another winner from Criterion. Those folks are good.