In 1994, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn made an acclaimed movie out of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” called “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Over 20 years later, they’ve made their next movie together.
Someone familiar with their process might ask, “Why so soon?”
Longtime friends and collaborators, Gregory and Shawn like to let their theatrical projects marinate for a long time (their other film collaboration with director Louie Malle, “My Dinner With Andre,” came out in 1981). Gregory in particular seems very taken with the notion of theater for theater’s sake, of bringing actors together to live with the text, letting it unfold and reveal itself over time. The stage version of their next project, Henrik Ibsen’s “A Master Builder” took 14 years in the making, and when it was finally performed, it was for an invite-only audience of 27 at a time.
Jonathan Demme was in the audience for one of those performances, and the result is a film version of “A Master Builder,” now out from the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray disc is available separately or as a boxed set with “Vanya” and “Andre.”
While “Andre” plays like a filmed conversation, “Vanya” was a bit of a meta theatrical experiment, staged in a crumbling theater with the actors (including a young Julianne Moore) in street clothes, as if they were just hashing out Chekhov’s text together on an off day. “A Master Builder,” meanwhile, is very much a filmed play, with a swanky New York private club subbing for the country estate of the Master Builder, the architect Solness.
Solness is a self-regarding Great Man, keeping all around him in his thrall through his reputation and emotional manipulation. His old rival Brovik (Gregory) has been thoroughly vanquished, and comes around pleading for Solness to recommend the work of his son Ragnar (Kurt Biehl). Bluff and seemingly gregarious, but with a cunning underneath that seemingly expansive manner, Solness easily manipulates the women in his life, all but having an affair with his bookkeeper Kaia (Emily Cass McDonell) under the noise of his quietly tortured wife (Julie Hagerty of “Airplane”.)
Solness’ comfortable rule of this dominion is ruptured by the arrival of Hilde (Lisa Joyce), a young fangirl in short shorts who claims to have met the architect when she was a pre-teen girl. The pure adulation radiating from Hilde draws in the preening Solness, but then he discovers darker elements to her obsession with him. She begins to manipulate him, although whether she’s doing it deliberately or unwittingly is held in reserve by the film and by Joyce’s wonderful performance. A young Chicago actress, Joyce is mesmerizing as Hilde, shifting from giddy joy into rage or grief in the blink of an eye. Solness (and Shawn) hangs on for dear life in their scenes together, the best in the film, which Demme wisely shoots in extreme close-ups, “Rachel Getting Married”-style.
The bloom comes off “A Master Builder” somewhat when other characters enter the frame. The film is so committed to shooting all of Ibsen’s text, and Demme is so committed to his handheld close-up aesthetic, that less electric scenes start to drag, such as a long back-and-forth between Solness and a country doctor (Larry Pine). And the new framing device that Demme employs to explain the surreal elements of Ibsen’s play turn the ending into one of the hoariest conventions of either stage or screen.
Still, “A Master Builder” is worth watching for those moments of intimate combustion between Shawn and Joyce (or a later scene between Joyce and Hagerty) that transcend either medium. Given their way of working, their usual timetable suggests this may be Shawn and Gregory’s last cinematic collaboration together, and it should be treasured.
The Criterion disc includes several interviews, the best being a free-flowing conversation between the acerbically great Fran Leibowitz and Shawn and Gregory.