There’s something poignantly quaint about Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder, an adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play that harks back to the kind of highly theatrical, bluntly and densely symbolic chamber dramas that were chic in Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. For that reason, the film is weirdly comforting: Like NPR or A Prairie Home Companion, its good taste feels largely detached from the world as we currently know it. Ibsen is an extraordinarily influential playwright, and that, perhaps unfairly, doesn’t always serve this interpretation. It’s hard to watch architect Halvard Solness (screenwriter Wallace Shawn) wrestle with his control-freakishness, his womanizing, his encroaching emasculation, and his unresolved issues with his wife’s (Julie Hagerty) burned familial home and not think of Death of a Salesman, Buried Child, or any other hundred theatrical sensations to follow at least partially in Ibsen’s direction. At times, A Master Builder feels too pleased with its artistic bona fides, and the cleverness of the various resonances is too neat and hermetic. It doesn’t emotionally open up in the fashion of Louis Malle’s collaborations with Shawn and André Gregory, so much as close in on itself, possibly locking the viewer out.
There’s still quite a bit to savor here. The filmmakers honor Ibsen by building a veritable puzzle house of words, drawing you into a bewildering infrastructure of self-rationalization. Halvard’s prone to a cop-out that’s traditional of gifted and acclaimed people: He admits his faults freely as a method of eluding the process of actually atoning for them. This tendency is most vividly displayed when Halvard spars with Hilde (Lisa Joyce), a beautiful young woman from his past who appears at his house one day with the randomness of a specter. It’s clear early on that Halvard molested Hilde while she was a child, promising to come and whisk her away to a grand palace that’s at once a phallic joke and a parody of paternal courtship. The language is so directly symbolic (he calls her a “wild bird of the forest”; she calls him a beastly troll creature) that it’s indirect: The symbols change their meanings and bounce off one another with a disconcerting speed that pulls you into the characters’ uncertainty, which they mask with a flamboyant accusatory confidence.
The actors, and Demme’s rapport with them, are the reasons to see the film. The diminutive, hyper-intellectual, and raspy-voiced Shawn is generally not someone’s idea of a romantic lothario, but that disconnect deepens the ironies of the character. The actor physicalizes Halvard’s embitterment, understanding that his sexuality is essentially an embodiment of possessive will, which is memorably vocalized in bold, tormented speeches concerned with the “forces of the universe.” Hagerty hits notes of primal, repressed fury—particularly with her eyes—that will unsettle those familiar with the actor for her misleadingly passive mom roles. Gregory (who wrote the adaptation that inspired Shawn’s screenplay), in a brief but key role as a rival architect, sets the film’s tone of heightened angry melancholia. And Joyce is flabbergasting in her vocal fluidity, as she must play to Halvard’s fantasy of Hilde, heightening her sexuality to a point just shy of courting masturbatory parody, while allowing us to see the ravages of Halvard’s violation.
Demme films his actors in the same gracefully handheld fly-by-night fashion that he used to shape the emotional contours of his superb Rachel Getting Married. The director, thankfully, doesn’t make any self-conscious attempts to “open up” the text. Instead, he homes in on the actors with such mesmerizing intensity as to fashion a paradoxical opera of micro-specificity. Astutely, he expands the aspect ratio after an opening act of narrow close-ups, only to often subsequently center the actors together in the middle of the larger screen. No matter how much room the characters have at their disposal, they clearly, truly, have nowhere to turn for refuge. Demme makes loving sport of the trust his actors have clearly placed in him, erecting for them a monument to the joys and terrors of walking an emotional high wire.