Monday, May 11, 2015

Tonal Trouble

When a director of Jonathan Demme's caliber sets out to tackle Ibsen, it can raise your expectations until you discover that Demme would perhaps find a more companionable relationship with Chekhov. Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large discusses the the dismantling of A Master Builder, to be released soon on DVD by the Criterion Collection.

Ibsen Gone Wrong: A Master Builder

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in A Master Builder

André Gregory’s staging of Uncle Vanya (in the David Mamet translation), rehearsed over nearly five years and brought to the screen in 1994 by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, is one of the great achievements in modern American cinema. (I’d say it’s the best movie of the nineties, as well the best rendering of Chekhov I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see.) But Gregory and Jonathan Demme come a cropper with their film of A Master Builder, from Wallace Shawn’s version of Ibsen’s 1892 play, even though Gregory rehearsed it with his cast for even longer than he and his actors worked on Vanya. Ibsen is notoriously difficult to pull off, and Master Builder poses even more daunting challenges than the plays he wrote between 1879 (A Doll House) and 1890 (Hedda Gabler). Some of those texts – The Lady from the Sea and The Wild Duck – have symbolist leanings, but essentially he’s working within a realist framework and with the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama, which he alters in daring ways that made Victorian audiences uneasy. Master Builder, though, moved Ibsen more firmly toward the symbolism of works like Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken. Yet Gregory and his cast – with a single concession – treat it as if it were Chekhov, with disastrous results.

Actually that approach could never work, even with a play like A Doll House or Ghosts. Chekhov is always striving to undermine theatricality, to present human behavior as closely as possible to the way he saw it play itself out in real life. The Norwegian Ibsen was, like his Russian contemporary, a brilliant psychologist, but as a dramatist he was in love with big ideas, and he conveyed them in big gestures. In Master Builder the architect Halvard Solness, late in a triumphant career, is terrified of losing ground to the next generation. So he keeps on Ragnar Brovik – the talented son of an architect whose career Solness wrecked in his own youth (and then hired on to do the mathematical calibrations that Solness himself couldn’t be bothered with) – in a menial position. Ragnar should be working on his own commissions, but Solness won’t allow it, and to secure his hold on him he makes sure that Ragnar’s fiancée, Kaia (who works as Solness’s secretary and bookkeeper), is as much in thrall to him as Trilby is to Svengali. Kaia and Solness aren’t lovers – though Solness’s wife Aline believes they are – but the trembling, helpless girl lives for him. Ragnar’s dying father begs Solness to give the boy a word of encouragement and send him off on his own career, but to spare even that much kindness, in Solness’s mind, would be tantamount to opening the door to be trampled by the onslaught of merciless youth.

Solness’s marriage to Aline is also tainted by psychological scars for both. When their first home burned down and he built a new one, the achievement was his first major success and initiated his famous career. But he’s always felt guilty for the fire because he’d fantasized it, wished for it; he even kept silent about a flaw in the chimney that he’d noticed. The fact that the fire didn’t start in the chimney hasn’t assuaged his guilt; he’s like a man who wakes out of a nightmare so intense that he goes on believing it really happened. Shortly afterwards they lost their twin babies, when the fever Aline developed after being dragged out of the blazing house in the cold poisoned her milk. So she lives with her own guilt, unabated, mingled with grief.

The third major character in the play is Hilde Wangel, a woman in her early twenties who appears the day before the completion of Solness’s latest project, a house that he and Aline plan to move into. Hilde met Solness ten years earlier, when she was thirteen and he was completing a project in her home town, and she fell in love with him; she claims – though he has no memory of it – that he kissed her passionately and promised to carry him away with her when she grew older. Hilde exists in Ibsen’s play almost entirely as a symbolic character, the spirit of the romantic youth that has deserted him in his advancing age, to be replaced by the specter of devouring youth that has made him paranoid. She drives him on to recreate a celebrated moment that she says she witnessed – though Aline refuses to believe it – when, defying his own weakness, vertigo, he climbed the scaffold himself to place a wreath on the tower of the finished building.

Lisa Joyce and Julie Hagerty in A Master Builder
The concession to symbolism in this film is in reference to Hilde. This Solness (played by Shawn) is in frail health as the movie begins, bed-bound and hooked up to machines, but when Hilde enters he rises, spry once again, the bloom restored to his cheeks. Since the style of the movie has been naturalistic up to this point, the shift is so puzzling that you search for a rational explanation: is he undergoing dialysis, maybe? But presumably Hilde is meant to be a figment of Solness’s imagination – even though, weirdly enough, she’s still on stage at the end after he expires. Aside from that contradiction, this idea strikes me as woefully wrong-headed, since Ibsen wrote Solness as vigorous, enough so to be able to tyrannize his staff. (That’s certainly how Leo McKern plays him in the 1988 BBC edition of the play.) Ibsen’s master builder is also charismatic – a towering figure. Wallace Shawn is a superb actor; I thought his Vanya was as good as Michael Redgrave’s in the 1963 film version (a transcription of a famous Chichester Theatre production). But he’s so miscast here that he distorts the play. It’s as if it had been rewritten with the professor from Uncle Vanya at the center of the action – but without the touches of humor that George Gaynes brought to the role of the professor in Vanya on 42nd Street. Larry Pine (Dr. Astrov in Vanya), whom Gregory has recruited for the small part of Dr. Herdal, seems like a much more likely candidate for Solness. Some years ago I saw Pine in a one-man dramatization of Tolstoy’s story “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and he was mesmerizing in the way one imagines the legendary stage performers of the nineteenth century, like Kean and Booth, must have been. Shawn works very hard, but his Solness seems merely ornery and unpleasant.

You need someone as ineffable as the young Vanessa Redgrave or the young Blythe Danner to make the part of Hilde work. (I remember liking Cynthia Nixon very much when she played it at Hartford Stage in 1991.) Lisa Joyce, an actress I haven’t noticed before (though evidently I’ve seen some of her television work), plays Hilde, and she makes her entrance with so much tremulous intensity that you think she might turn out to be an exciting performer. But after about twenty minutes she’s done so much hysterical laughing and crying that you want to douse her with cold water. Joyce put me in mind of the infamous Three Sisters the Actors Studio produced in the mid-sixties with Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley and Sandy Dennis giving rip-snorting performances that made you root around in your pocket for a couple of Aspirin. It doesn’t help that Demme has directed most of the movie in close-up, sometimes with a hand-held camera, often in shot/reaction shot, so that you don’t feel you ever get a breather from all that deep-dyed Method emotional commitment.

Emily Cass McDonnell as a baby-voiced Kaia and Jeff Biehl as a wide-eyed Ragnar are pretty bad, but Pine and Gregory himself (as old Brovik) are fine, though there’s an unhappy moment when the camera pinions Gregory as he bursts into tears. There is, however, one actor who breaks through: Julie Hagerty as Aline. Hagerty is still slim and in her late fifties her cheekbones are more pronounced than ever, so she looks like an objet d’art, especially with her hair pinned back in a tight chignon. She seems not merely suffused with grief and guilt but driven a little loony by it; Hagerty’s eccentric, pop-eyed presence and her witty, unexpected vocal patterns, which made her such an inspired comic early in her career in movies like Albert Brooks’s Lost in America, make her performance naturally stylized, just as Piper Laurie’s lyricism and her swirling, smoky voice stylized hers in Carrie. She’s quite an amazing spectacle here. Otherwise A Master Builder is misbegotten.

- originally published on September 22, 2014 in Critics at Large.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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