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Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder Is Madly, Bitingly, Chillingly Alive

Wallace Shawn in A Master Builder.

Twenty years ago, André Gregory gathered a group of great actors to rehearse Uncle Vanya; Louis Malle came in to film their work, almost as if he were shooting a documentary; and the result, Vanya on 42nd Street, was an astonishing fusion of theater and film—superb Chekhov, superb moviemaking. Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and Larry Pine have reunited for Henrik Ibsen’s A Master Builder, and, Malle being dead, Jonathan Demme has stepped into the breach. (The film is dedicated to Malle.) Demme doesn’t take a documentary approach, which I don’t think would work for this strange masterpiece—a play that marked the moment that Ibsen began to turn away from the naturalism of A Doll’s House and Ghosts and head back to the mythic, poetic realm of earlier epics like Brand and Peer Gynt. Gregory and Demme have turned A Master Builder into (pardon my invoking the name of a Strindberg work) a dream play, and have made it once more madly, bitingly, chillingly alive.

To get the obvious out of the way, the squeaky, small-statured Shawn would not have been my first choice for the architect Halvard Solness, traditionally played by actors in the heroic Olivier–Von Sydow mold. He’s marvelous, though. Gregory starts with him in the master-builder bed, with an oxygen tube in his nose and a heart monitor, the people in his life gathering around him like a fallen—but still dangerous—king. I miss the aspect of Solness that’s meant to be titanic and visionary, a stand-in for the playwright. But this mean, manipulative little man in a tracksuit is the perfect conception for what follows: the story of a tyrant whose agent of destruction bounds in from his own unconscious.

She’s Hilde Wangel, obsessed with Solness from the age of 12, when he traveled to her town, presided over the dedication of a great tower, and kissed her and told her he’d come back in a decade and carry her off. Lisa Joyce makes no attempt at realism. She’s like a siren from the fjord—sexy, funny, luring Solness to the edge while laughing, always laughing. It’s a thrilling performance—it made me see the connection between A Master Builder and David Ives’s emasculation fantasy, Venus in Fur. Joyce’s Hilde is the perfect foil for the other figure in Solness’s world, his sepulchral wife, Aline, played by Julie Hagerty (yes, the marvelous comic actress) as a stick demon whose manner is excessively prim but whose eyes glow with rage.

The other actors—Pine as Solness’s physician, Jeff Biehl as the draftsman he sees as his rival (and keeps down), Emily Cass McDonnell as his mesmerized secretary, and Gregory as the assistant’s elderly father—give definitive performances, and Demme employs a jittery, handheld camera to heighten our intimacy with them. But neither he nor Gregory can bring off the play’s florid climax, which is nearly unstageable and cries out for something operatic. It’s the one beat missed in a film that, beat by beat, brings the genius of Ibsen to the screen in a way I never thought was possible.          

*This article appears in the July 14, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.