*. The Master Builder is a play I’ve never seen in performance. I may have even avoided it because I didn’t think it would work well on stage. The action seemed a bit silly and the ultimate meaning of it all obscure.
*. As Wallace Shawn puts it in the conversation included with the Criterion DVD, “no one understands The Master Builder.” It’s certainly a work that has invited a wide range of interpretation over the years. I think it suggests different things to different people. This Master Builder (note the change to an indefinite article in the title) offers up one reading, and it’s one I wasn’t expecting.
*. The wrinkle here is that most of the play is imagined as Halvard Solness’s dying thoughts. Hilde (Lisa Joyce) isn’t a real person but a figure summoned out of his unconscious. Or perhaps a succubus, the angel of death, or the “grim reaper in disguise” (Joyce mentions this as a possibility). His death at the end, in turn, is only symbolically a fall from a tower. In fact he dies in bed.
*. There are two things I’ll say about this way of presenting the play. First: it’s bold and highly original. I’d never thought of the play in this way, but it’s incredibly effective and I’ll probably never read it again without first imagining it in these terms.
*. The second point worth making is that Shawn and his longtime collaborator André Gregory had been doing The Master Builder for years before deciding to film it and this dream angle was only a late decision. Gregory attributes it to the fact that he was a much older man than when he started working on it and his concerns had changed. He was now more interested in the end of life, getting old and dying, and what it meant. In the play Solness is only middle-aged, so obviously this is a big shift in perspective.
*. So as a production of The Master Builder I rate this very high. As a movie, a little less so.
*. They didn’t want to just make a film of a play. That’s always the case when people make a film of a play. But it’s something that’s hard to avoid and I don’t think it’s avoided here. I don’t think there’s much achieved here in terms of Demme’s filmmaking that really adds to what Gregory and Shawn had already done. That it was shot in eight days, all inside the same house, adds to this.
*. Even the performances, which are good, strike me as being played more in a stage manner than for the camera. They are, in general, too broad. Joyce’s Hilde is maybe the most extreme in this regard, all breathy whispers and giggles that make her seem almost orgasmic. An interesting way of imagining the role, but I think there’s too much of it. And in the supplemental material it’s said that there was a lot more of her laughter in the original cut. Apparently Shawn didn’t even notice it. How odd.
*. How we view Hilde is crucial. Demme thought of her as a “mysterious stranger” in a haunted house film. Gregory, seeing Solness as Ebenezer Scrooge, also saw her as a sort of spirit or ghost. Ibsen, I think, thought she was a homewrecker (nicely complementing Solness in his role as home builder). She’s all this, and a sexual force as well that introduces a bunch of other complicated elements. Was Solness hitting on her at a party when she was 12? What’s up with that? Is this her revenge?
*. If Hilden is fertile ground the other players in the drama have always seemed to me incomplete and frustrating. Kaia’s infatuation with Solness and her dual allegiance to him and her fiancé make no sense to me. I don’t know what the doctor’s purpose is in the play, though his appearance here is at least justified. As for Aline (Julie Hagerty), I guess she just represents grudging duty. But is she mentally well? Are we supposed to think she’s crazy?
*. I think Ibsen gives these characters short shrift so I can’t blame this production for being just as vague. I’ll stick with saying this is a great Master Builder. A great movie? No.