A Master Builder: Ibsen in Nyack

On Film / Essays — Jun 17, 2015
A Master Builder

What a difference an A makes! Jonathan Demme’s movie A Master Builder (2014) galvanizes Henrik Ibsen’s heavily symbolic drama The Master Builder—a wonderful play to read, a difficult one to stage—into a vivid, nightmarish dream. Hollywood adapters used to concentrate on “opening up” celebrated plays by scattering the action and taking it outdoors. Demme’s A Master Builder opens up The Master Builder by burrowing down into the psyche of its artisan antihero and turning his home into a dreamscape. Demme and his collaborators, actor-playwright Wallace Shawn and actor–stage director André Gregory, have shaped the film as a dark, lucid fantasia. More than a stylistic triumph, the film is an act of aesthetic reclamation, starting with the altered title. The master builder really does become a master builder—not a supreme creator but a prime example of the imperial personality who now more than ever rules the popular imagination.

In productions that follow Ibsen’s stage directions, the curtains part to reveal the master’s staff drafting his designs, doing calculations for his building plans, and recording the business’s expenses. This naturalism can fall into the overfamiliar ambience of TV workplace drama, and when Ibsen veers into outré subjects like mind control and his dialogue sprouts metaphors about sexual and artistic potency—scaling heights and erecting spires—the effect, in performance, can be jarring.

The movie operates on a different wavelength from the outset, conjuring a mysterious and sometimes macabre context while zeroing in on the protagonist as a creator of homes and destroyer of lives. The camera snakes into an office that resembles a makeshift intensive care unit. Halvard Solness (Shawn), a master builder—that is, a cross between an architect and a contractor—lies motionless in a hospital bed. Nurses scurry past architectural models, blueprints, and an empty drafting board. This is the film’s biggest departure from Ibsen, portraying Solness in extremis and his ensuing psychodrama with a supple young beauty as a deathbed fantasy.

When Solness’s rival turned right-hand man, Knut Brovik (Gregory), comes to plead for help on behalf of his son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl)—an aspiring master builder who has been an indispensable aid to Solness—the unregenerate megalomaniac squelches the old fellow’s hopes. Solness savors his odd erotic hold over Ragnar’s fiancée, Kaia Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell), warning her that she can’t keep working as his bookkeeper if she marries Ragnar and helps him set up shop. And he cruelly defends his reliance on Kaia to his wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), saying, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone here who is available to look after my needs.”

These interchanges closely follow the original play. But they become more penetrating and bleakly comic when triggered by a man on the brink of death. So does Solness’s confession to his physician, Dr. Herdal (Larry Pine), that via some paranormal gift he can implant his desires in the brains of others to get exactly what he wants. Right after he tells Herdal that he’s terrified of younger competitors banging on his door, a twenty-two-year-old woman, Hilde (Lisa Joyce), does just that. Is she a succubus or a savior? Hilde provokes an immediate fascination with her unvarnished sensuality. (Her “hitched-up skirt” in the 1896 play, designed for walking, becomes a pair of tight white short shorts.) She makes it her crusade to reignite Solness’s creativity, though she risks destroying his marital and professional stability.

Physically and emotionally, the movie unfolds in a timeless “now.” The exteriors of Solness’s town, filmed in Nyack, New York, feature nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homes that still look charming and comfortable. (The interiors were shot at the elegant Manhattan town house formerly occupied by the Pen and Brush club.) Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, use the camera as a divining rod of domestic emotions, taking in the complexities of characters caught in moral disarray while also soaking up the everyday poetry of a lived-in kitchen or a window seat catching sun in late afternoon. The film is shot in a handheld style that’s lyrical and purposeful. It draws on the work of John Cassavetes as well as millennial horror movies. The director has described A Master Builder as a “haunted house” movie with Hilde as a “mysterious stranger.” But it’s a high-end haunted house movie—the kind that gets all the spooky effects it needs from the contrast between a young man’s eager gaze and a dying man’s disillusioned eyes, or from the sudden radiance in a room when an otherworldly character makes her first jolting appearance.

Demme’s inspired work here falls midway between what Louis Malle did in My Dinner with André (1981), discovering a distinctive movie form for an original script cowritten by Shawn and Gregory, and what the French director accomplished with the pair’s Vanya on 42nd Street. For Vanya (1994), Malle found an ideal cinematic home for the original theatrical conception, directed by Gregory and starring Shawn. A Master Builder was never staged in a theater, and Demme shoots the movie without any regard for stage space. The locations help redefine Ibsen’s action; the film finds its own unique form as a sardonic, farce-streaked tragedy about a man who’s not at home in his own estate.

This brilliant synthesis began when Gregory and Shawn decided a year after Vanya on 42nd Street to continue their partnership. Shawn picked the playwright, Ibsen, but Gregory chose the play, The Master Builder—or, to use their preferred title, Master Builder Solness (from the Norwegian Bygmester Solness). As Shawn explains in his afterword to his published stage script, he knew “a bit of German” and had “spent enough time in Norway to know how Norwegian was pronounced,” so he agreed to provide Gregory with a new translation. After photocopying the Norwegian text onto oversize paper, he asked a scholar of Scandinavian literature, Sandra Saari, to write literal English equivalents for every line, word for word, or rather words for word, as Shawn requested a smattering of synonyms for each of Ibsen’s nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and verbs. She wrote them in tiny script right next to the original Norwegian on the very large sheets. Shawn hoped to achieve dialogue “that could be believably spoken by people today (without ever using the sort of slang that would permanently affix the line to a particular time and place).” He aimed to supply Gregory with the springboard for a superb reimagining of a magnum opus, as David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (based on a literal rendering by Vlada Chernomordik) had done for the stage venture that became Vanya on 42nd Street.

In 1997, with the script in hand, Gregory requested that Shawn play Solness, knowing that the writer-actor was eager to do it. As part of the ensemble, Shawn continued tweaking his text, ultimately taking the imaginative leap of putting Solness on his deathbed and transfiguring the action into the builder’s final dream. “André had always felt that the play was about a man’s confrontation with himself as he approaches death,” Shawn notes in his afterword. “This made that explicit.” Gregory suggested that he change the title from The to A Master Builder, to acknowledge that his translation was in part an adaptation. Rehearsals continued in the Gregory tradition, taking up bits and pieces of the calendar for roughly fifteen years. As Shawn points out, “Even when we were not together, we kept working on the play in the workshops of our unconscious minds, which is an essential part of André’s method.” While the actors in the younger roles changed before Demme rolled the cameras in 2012, Shawn, Hagerty, Pine, and Gregory stuck with their characters. Their marathon workshops, never formally produced, were presented only to small audiences of colleagues and friends. Happily, when Demme finally saw the company at work, he said, “Let’s film it.”

The finished movie is a tribute to four sensibilities: Ibsen’s, Shawn’s, Gregory’s, and Demme’s. Each contributes a conceptual coup. To start with, Ibsen’s shockingly contemporary plot could hold the front page of any present-day tabloid. Once Hilde gets Solness alone, she contends that he kissed her passionately when she was twelve, after he marked the completion of a church he’d built in her town by laying a wreath on its spire. She says that Solness promised to claim her as his princess ten years later and to erect a kingdom for her in the clouds. At first, Solness remembers none of this. As the play goes on, it never becomes clear whether he has actually suppressed the memory or has acknowledged it because of his burgeoning desire for the adult Hilde and the feeling she inspires in him that he towers over all his youthful rivals. (Ibsen wrote The Master Builder when younger Scandinavian writers like Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg were wresting the spotlight away from him.) According to Ibsen’s biographers, the playwright based Hilde on a Viennese woman he’d befriended in the Austrian Tyrol when he was sixty-one and she was eighteen. Although Ibsen depicted her to a friend as a rapacious creature whom he’d fended off, he later wrote to the woman herself that the summer he’d spent with her in the Tyrol had been “the happiest, the most beautiful, in my whole life.” Ibsen’s treatment of this charged relationship goes beyond a social-political exploration of improper behavior or a psychological chart of a man stumbling from a midlife crisis into a scandalous liaison. It’s electrified with mixed emotions. Hilde is too formidable and emotionally rich to be a vengeful victim or even a fresh-faced femme fatale, while part of Solness’s pathos lies in his avidity for beauty and his assumption of responsibility for all the ugliness in his life.

Shawn’s contribution—surrounding an ailing Solness with nurses and hooking him up to machines—clarifies this master builder’s need to confront his unresolved issues: as Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Equally important, it preserves Ibsen’s complicated view of Solness’s connection to Hilde, removing these characters from the “he said/she said” conundrums or reductive moral rants of contemporary discussions about seemingly taboo relationships. By turns a muse, a demon, and a flesh-and-blood woman, Hilde elucidates the conflicts in Solness’s consciousness while establishing her own enigmatic divinity with her vibrant, fleshy presence.

Solness is one of those can-do men afflicted with a masculine form of magical thinking. Blending hubris and insecurity, he ascribes his success to mysterious forces that enabled him to bend fate. He’s convinced that by overlooking a crack in his home’s chimney, he caused the pivotal fire that indirectly resulted in the deaths of his and Aline’s twin baby boys—and ultimately fueled his rise—though the blaze actually started in a clothes closet. Astonishingly, the couple maintained nurseries when they moved into another house—and Solness has built rooms for children in the home he is finishing. It’s one of the most stunning examples in literature of a man believing that some grand action can heal a deep psychological wound. He’s infuriating, befuddling, and pathetic, but he’s also a charismatic character. For one thing, he really is an artist who explores genuine obsessions—from churches with magnificent spires to realistic family homes and, finally, extravagant dream palaces. As Scottish critic William Archer first pointed out, his evolution mirrors that of Ibsen himself, who went from romantic dramas like Peer Gynt to social dramas like A Doll’s House, and then on to spiritual dramas like The Master Builder—the equivalent of Solness’s “castles in the air.”

While shaping his theatrical experiment, Gregory kept thinking of Solness as a Norwegian cousin of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. “There’s always hope,” Gregory said during a panel at the Screen Actors Guild Foundation. “No matter what kind of a son of a bitch you are, no matter how unhappy you are, how loveless, it’s not over till it’s over.” This teeming notion enables Shawn to play Solness as if he’s suffering the agonies of an unfulfilled man and master while trapped in his entitled mentality.

Solness doesn’t realize that his wife, in Hagerty’s exquisite rendering, registers every stroke of his egotism and ambition like a tiny whiplash. Or does he? Archer described Ibsen’s play, wanly but accurately, as the dramatization of “a sickly conscience.” In this production, that conscience becomes carnivorous and turns in on itself. Ibsen wrote at a time when hypnotism and spiritualism were sweeping through the upper classes. Whether or not you accept Solness’s belief that he can bend fate and people to his will, Shawn as an actor has the telepathic power to embed his mental vision of reality in his castmates and the audience. He resists the fire-breathing clichés of an overwhelming man. He can be surprisingly tender with Hilde and Aline and also playful. And Joyce is just as startlingly original and magnetic as Shawn, whether Hilde is feeding Solness’s ego or coercing him to become the transcendent artist and fearless, magnanimous man of her dreams. Because of Gregory’s generous reading of the play as a man’s belated struggle for redemption, you ultimately view Joyce’s quicksilver Hilde as the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future rolled into one.

No stage production that I’ve seen is this headlong, sensual, and mystical. The movie was shot under the title Fear of Falling, and it sucks viewers into an emotional vortex. Demme’s vision goes beyond seeing the film as a haunted house movie. It’s more like a profound Twilight Zone episode—specifically, Robert Enrico’s 1962 short film of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which brought new immediacy to the idea of life flashing before a man’s eyes with its account of a Confederate plantation owner on the verge of being hanged.

Demme is just as upfront as Enrico in providing evidence that his protagonist is about to leave this earth. The piping on Solness’s pajamas seems to merge with the wiring connecting him to the machines monitoring his vitals. In his delirium, his vision of light racing through trees is similar to the plantation owner’s in Enrico’s film. Life and death really do run together in A Master Builder. Remarkably, this film’s double-decker approach to fantasy and reality deepens the viewer’s relationship to its characters, in the manner of Ingmar Bergman films like Cries and Whispers. Demme’s close shots of Solness and Hilde, and Hilde and Aline, rank with Bergman at his peak: they’re eloquent duets for desperate characters.