Wallace Shawn (Master Builder Solness) and Lisa Joyce (Hilde) in A Master Builder
Jonathan Demme seems to be the new Louis Malle, in the sense that he has directed the latest collaboration of Wallace Shawn and André Gregory. The costars of My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street, both directed by Malle, are reunited in A Master Builder, Demme's new film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Bygmester Solness (Master Builder Solness). The screenplay credit goes to Shawn, although the film is based on a stage production of the play created by Gregory, and the changes to the structure of the play are significant. Demme, who has not made a good feature movie since Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the 1990s, has directed an earnest and sometimes surprising version of this play, with a twist that transforms the plot from one about an old man ruined by a seductive woman to one about an old man who is saved by one (watch out for spoilers after the jump).
Shawn plays Halvard Solness, a highly regarded architect whose life is coming apart, as a mostly vile and petty egotist, blinded to anyone's concerns but his own. Everything in his life has gone wrong, ever since a fire burned down his wife's family home, in a way killing their three-week-old twin sons. At the same time, the tragedy boosted his career, for which Solness feels he is being punished: "I am being ground down into the dirt," he says at one point, "overpowered by guilt." He is cruel to his ailing colleague, Brovik (played with painful sincerity by Gregory), and his son who aspires to be an architect, keeping the son and his fiancée, with whom he is carrying on a not-so-secret affair, under his thumb. Into this situation comes a young woman, Hilde, who is a stand-in for the older Ibsen's infatuations with young women late in his life. She confronts Solness with his past, when he designed a building in her village and, at a celebration for the opening, treated her, then only a young girl, in a way that we might now describe as molestation.