Demme perhaps humanized the stereotype of the arrogant artist who collects and discards a series of ever-younger women.
Adapted from a play by Henrik Ibsen, A Master Builder was first conceived by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn after their collaboration on what would be director Louis Malle’s final film, the Chekov adaptation Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). Gregory and Shawn, whose conversation formed the basis of Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981), rehearsed the Ibsen material on and off for 15 years with Julie Hagerty and Larry Pine, who would both appear in the film. While its cast is clearly invested in the Ibsen work, Jonathan Demme, who dedicates the film to Malle, perhaps hadn’t lived the work the way much of his cast had. The movie lacks the personal touch of such late-career triumphs as Rachel Getting Married. But a film that, when it was first released in 2013, seemed but a blip in Demme’s career, has taken on an obvious resonance in today’s climate. Its dying protagonist is the creator as monster, an all-too-common figure in today’s news; yet in his generous spirit, Demme perhaps humanized the stereotype of the arrogant artist who collects and discards a series of ever-younger women.
We meet Halvard Solness (Shawn) on a deathbed in his stately home in upstate New York. The scenario vaguely echoes The Silence of the Lambs, the confines of an adjustable bed recalling the various jails that never quite contained Hannibal Lecter. The dying architect debated the fate of Ragnar Brovik (Jeff Biehl), a talented builder who has long been under his employ. Solness acknowledges the young architect’s talent, but resents him as well, and as he speaks with his friend Dr. Herdal (Pine), Solness relates tales of professional manipulation and opportunism, and even suggests that he can control the minds of his young charges—including women. As his heart monitor quickens, Solness falls into an end-of-life reverie, and as if conjuring a dream, a knock on the door reveals Hilde (Lisa Joyce), who has apparently come to visit as an admirer paying her respects. But she has other intentions. The now 22-year-old woman reminds Solness that, when she was 12, he kissed her and promised that if she came back in ten years he would give her a kingdom.
The play was in part autobiographical for Ibsen, inspired by his involvement with an 18-year-old admirer when he was 61.Yet this is not the self-serving indulgence of Louis C. K.’s I Love You, Daddy. Casting Shawn as an aging Lothario may have been unrealistic, even inconceivable, but his depiction of the creator as lascivious troll is informed by the humanity that Demme allowed in all of his characters, from the lowliest CB-radio aficionado to the most evil serial killer. And he is a perfect foil for a perfectly modulated performance by Joyce, whose nervous laughter sets an unsettling tone for her pivotal scene with Solness.
That laughter may seem superficial at first, the anxious tics of small talk that dances around a more uncomfortable subject; but when Solness’ wife (depicted with quiet power by Hagerty) shares a conversation with her would-be replacement, those startling peals of mirth turn out to be a mask for unspeakable grief.
If A Master Builder revealed a playwright coming to terms with his unsavory past, Demme doesn’t pass judgement on the penitent, even as in a climactic scene Solness faces three (of what we presume are more) women of different generations whom he has taken under his wing. Depicting an architect known for phallic towers, Demme sadly recognizes that the creative urge can’t be extricated from sexual urges. Yet in the end, the performances are stronger than the film that contains them, as if art cannot come to grips with this conundrum.