A Master Builder (Movie) based on the play by Henrik Ibsen; adapted by Wallace Shawn; directed by Jonathan
Demme; starring Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty, Lisa Joyce, Larry Pine, André Gregory, Jeff
Biehl, Emily Cass McDonnell
I don't know all the background of this film, but it looks a lot like another of those projects wherein Wallace Shawn
gathers a bunch of very sophisticated actors to work on some classic text for ages before actually committing their work to
film. His Uncle Vanya is a good example. Usually, these films offer lots of what might be called "method acting"
– i.e. emphasis on the interiority of the characters – almost none of the pizzaz or glamour of a Hollywood production.
In this case, the filming doesn’t quite disguise the literary aspect of the piece. The opening scenes –
with lots of expository dialogue – seem very stagey. Characters keep making dramatic pauses and saying things like "Yes,
of course," (not an exact quote). None of it sounds natural and spontaneous, in spite of the many close-ups which are, apparently,
intended to offset the theatrical quality. There’s a problem with the editing, too. Sometimes, we get a reaction
shot too quickly. For example, character A will say something to make character B angry and we get the shot of B’s angry
face before there’s time for the effect of A’s remark to sink in. I was also somewhat distracted by the action
of the hand-held camera; it often zooms in and out to no discernible purpose. It’s interesting, though, that the camera
sometimes focuses on the face of someone other than the character who is speaking; that’s something you don’t
often get in conventional movies. It seems to invite us to consider what’s going on from a point of view other than
the obvious one.
The point at which the movie suddenly engaged me was when an elderly man (André Gregory)
is confiding in the master builder (Wallace Shawn). The older man is dying and he wants to go to his grave knowing that his
son has the makings of a successful architect. So the dad is pleading with the master builder to give the son some special
acknowledgment that will set him on the path to success. But the master builder refuses. He tells the dying dad something
like (not an exact quote): "You will go to your grave with whatever dignity you have been able to summon on your own behalf."
Wallace Shawn delivers the line with such chilling authority that it sets you back in your seat. He had me from that moment
Mind you, it was hard not to keep imagining someone in the role who looked more heroic than Mr. Shawn. Partly as a result
of seeing other productions, and partly from being familiar with the tradition Ibsen was writing in, I kept picturing the
kind of imposing, domineering actor who was probably a matinee idol not so long ago in his career. Mr. Shawn – with
his short stature and his unprepossessing mein – doesn’t easily banish that image. To give him full
credit, though, it’s unlikely that any of the more statuesque actors could so fully convey the fluctuating turmoil of
the character’s inner life. This man is constantly revealing new things about himself; we never seem to get to the bottom
of him. And yet the volcanic spew flows out of Mr. Shawn in a quirky way that seems completely authentic and believable.
You’re never sure what the truth is about this guy. Is he all about ambition, manipulation, vanity, jealousy, frustrated
love? The various possibilities swirl around and around, all of them plausible. As the fascination deepens, you can’t
help being reminded that this is great play writing. And just when you think things may be getting a little too talky, along
comes a plot development that gives the drama another push forward
Apart from Mr. Shawn, two of the women actors stand out as astounding. First, there’s Julie Hagerty, as the builder’s
wife, Aline. Ms Hagerty is one of those beautiful, stylish women who, at some point in life, becomes a Nancy Reagan: extremely
gaunt, almost skeletal, with very high cheek bones and deep-set eyes. Merely standing in a doorway, looking into a room, this
woman can bore holes into you with her stare. (Actually, she’s not looking at you, she’s looking at yet another
of the young women who have been attracted to her husband like flames to a moth.) It’s a wonder the camera doesn’t
break down under her penetrating glare. And yet, when this woman is forced to give the appearance of being gracious, she flashes
a smile so dazzling that it could melt icebergs. Her best moment is when she’s talking about some dolls of hers that
were destroyed in a house fire. She says it was a sad loss and yet she’s laughing at herself for being upset about such
a trivial thing. It’s rare that an actor can produce a kind of laughter that speaks so eloquently of heartbreak.
The other sensational performance comes from Lisa Joyce in the role of Hilde, a young woman who insists that she has some
kind of romantic claim on the master builder as a result of an encounter ten years earlier. Ms Joyce’s arrival on the
scene constitutes one of the all-time great entrances of any actor on stage or screen. Admittedly, lighting and camera angles
have a lot to do with it, but Ms. Joyce lives up to every such advantage and, by the force of her personality, she goes way
beyond what might be expected. Her charisma and charm – not to mention her great beauty – leap off the screen.
It’s no wonder that the master builder, even though he doesn’t remember a damn thing about her, responds to her
like a kid on finding his fairy godmother at the end of his bed. He hops around her, returning her smiles and giggles, like
an eager bunny.
The playful way these two interact almost has the effect of underlining the fact that other actors would probably do
the scene in a more careful, cautious way. And that’s one of the great things about this movie. You’re almost
always aware that the actors are interpreting the proceedings in new, fresh ways that seem perfectly right. Some aspects of
the innovating, however, are a little hard to get. The movie starts with the master builder in bed, hooked up to high-tech
machinery, a heart monitor beeping in the background. And yet, he’s being tended by old-fashioned looking nurses in
veils. The house that he’s inhabiting is obviously furnished in a 19th century way, but a young visitor is
dressed in very contemporary short-shorts, with knee socks and hiking boots. The only sense I can make of it is that the master
builder is a contemporary person who’s dreaming of all this happening to him. Somehow, the tragic end of the dream,
i.e. the one that Ibsen wrote, is made to overlap with the master builder’s real end in current time. Maybe the filmmakers
are trying to show that time is flexible, that past and present don’t always fit into our conventional chronological
Still, some motifs don’t translate well into contemporary terms. It’s hard to get excited today by the symbolic
import of the master’s wanting to build towers on his houses and to climb up on the completed structures in order to
crown them with a wreath. The only contemporary parallel I can think of is the custom that’s reported to take place
on the completion of structures like Toronto’s CN Tower. They say that, when the tower was finally capped, some of the
workers made a point of peeing off it. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that this movie wants to