A Master Builder
A Master Builder

Jonathan Demme, who directed the new screen adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is 70 years old, with a filmography that includes such notable features as Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Rachel Getting Married (2008). Seventy-year-old Wallace Shawn, who stars as Ibsen’s protagonist and scripted the film from his own translation of the play, has an acting resumé as long as your arm, dotted with such beloved movies as Manhattan (1979), The Princess Bride (1987), and Toy Story (1995). Eighty-year-old Andre Gregory, who nurtured the Master Builder project for years and appears onscreen in a supporting role, is one of the most highly regarded experimental theater directors in the country, his career stretching back to the early 1960s. (He also costarred with Shawn in the films My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street.)

Yet the most striking contribution to A Master Builder, which screens this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, comes from 31-year-old Lisa Joyce, a Chicago native and DePaul University graduate best known—if she’s known at all—for a recurring role on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Joyce, who will take questions at the Saturday and Sunday screenings of A Master Builder, plays the most metaphorically complex character in the film: Hilde Wangel, a 22-year-old woman who materializes one day at the home of revered architect Halvard Solness and reminds him of a shameful incident that occurred between them exactly ten years earlier. For Solness, who’s shocked by the memory but smitten with the flirtatious young woman, Hilde becomes a muse, a surrogate child, an inquisitor, and quite possibly the Angel of Death. Joyce’s scene-stealing performance in the role seems ironic when you consider that Ibsen’s primary subject was the terror of the older generation as the younger one arrives to sweep it away.

Back in the day, Solness (Shawn) was a young turk himself, learning his trade from the established builder Knut Brovik (Gregory). But as the play opens, Solness has long since eclipsed his mentor, Brovik’s business has gone bust, and Solness has hired the old man as part of his staff, along with Brovik’s talented son, Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), and the son’s fiancee, Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell). A heartless egotist, Solness maintains a Svengali-like hold over these three—especially Kaia, who’s quietly infatuated with him. Solness’s miserable wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), rages silently at this secret romance, yet the reality is even more despicable than she suspects: Solness has been leading Kaia on for years because he fears Ragnar as a professional rival, wants to keep the young man under his thumb, and knows that Kaia is the key to controlling him. Throughout his career, Solness has been blessed by extraordinary luck, but he’s the sort of man who prefers to pull the ladder up behind him.

Into this malignant household and workplace comes Hilde, the daughter of a prominent doctor in a nearby town. Ten years earlier, after building a tower on the town’s church, Solness celebrated by climbing to the top of the tower to hang a wreath; he still remembers the crowd of schoolgirls, all dressed in white, who cheered him as he climbed, and one in particular who grew so frenzied that the sight of her made him dizzy as he ascended. What he doesn’t remember is the sexual advance he made upon the little girl later that day, when they were left alone. “You said that when I grew up I should be your princess,” Hilde informs him. “You said that you would come again in ten years—like a troll and carry me off—to Spain or some such place. And you promised me you would buy me a kingdom there. . . . You took me in both your arms, and bent my head back and kissed me—many times.” For a decade, Hilde explains, she’s been waiting for him to fulfill his promise, and now she’s come to collect her kingdom.

Ibsen had already been recognized as a master dramatist by the time he wrote The Master Builder (1892), and the play has inspired a fair amount of tongue wagging from critics who consider it a thinly veiled autobiography. Three years before it was published, Ibsen spent the summer in the Tyrolean village of Gossensass, where he was feted by the villagers and became intimate with an 18-year-old girl named Emilie Bardach. “What tempted, fascinated, and delighted her was to lure other women’s husbands away from them,” the German writer Julius Elias remembered Ibsen telling him. “He had studied her very, very closely.” Ibsen had no shortage of groupies; that same summer he met Helene Raff, who later quoted him as saying, “You are youth, child, youth personified—and I need that—for my work, my writing.” But more serious than these dalliances was his intimate friendship with Hildur Andersen, whom he first met in 1874, when she was only ten years old, and who became his frequent companion beginning in 1891.

Interviewed recently for the Huffington Post, Joyce explained that, only a month before she was approached by Andre Gregory, she had been asked to audition for another production of The Master Builder but she declined: “I’d read the original version and I thought, ‘I don’t understand this character. I don’t know how to do this.'” Her confusion is hardly surprising, because Ibsen never really explains Hilde’s motive for insinuating herself into Solness’s life. Given the account of his pedophiliac behavior, Hilde appears at first to be a blackmailer, yet she makes no financial demands on Solness and lodges with the couple only at their invitation. Aline resents her immediately, as she does Kaia, yet if Hilde manipulates Solness emotionally, she does so only to make him a better person. She alone persuades him to scratch out a few complimentary remarks on some original building designs Ragnar has drawn, so that the young man can show them to his father before the old man dies.

As Ibsen once said of Helene Raff, Hilde is youth personified—yet even in this regard she’s an ambiguous figure. In one sense she’s the next generation Solness so fears. Confiding in the family doctor (Larry Pine), the architect declares, “Presently the younger generation will come knock at my door . . . then there’s an end of Halvard Solness”—at which point there’s a literal knock at his door, and Hilde makes her first entrance. At the same time, though, Hilde becomes a stand-in for the infant twins that Solness and his wife lost years earlier; informed that they have a guest, Aline installs Hilde in one of the nurseries that have been vacant since the children died. This gesture takes on a sinister tone when Solness discloses the details of the tragedy to Helene: after a virus contaminated his wife’s breast milk, she continued to nurse the twins out of a misplaced sense of obligation, snuffing the next generation maternally just as her husband does professionally.

Joyce would hardly be the first actor to give a strong performance in a role she couldn’t quite grasp at first (as the old thespian saying goes, once a man is old enough to understand the character of Hamlet, he’s too old to play Hamlet). That’s what directors are for, and Gregory, who has called the Ibsen staging his finest work, spent two years working on and off with Joyce to create her role. (The production itself was in development for nearly two decades, as a series of workshops and private performances, before Demme stepped forward to create a film version.) Joyce is an alluring woman, yet the real hook to her seductive Hilde is an infectious, bell-like laugh that communicates the character’s vitality and can bubble up at the most unexpected moments. One guesses that Gregory was responsible for recognizing and heightening this personal trait; only a man in his later years could understand that Solness loves Hilde not for her body but for her enjoyment of life.

According to Joyce, she changed her mind about doing The Master Builder after reading Shawn’s offbeat revision of the play; though Ibsen presents Solness as a vigorous man of about 60, Shawn opens with the architect on his deathbed, tended by nurses in old-fashioned white habits and visited by the other characters as a heart monitor beeps in the background. Every so often he begins to slip away, and Demme cuts to a kinetic shot of tree branches racing across the sky; when Solness utters his line about the younger generation knocking on the door, and Hilde arrives, Solness suddenly hops out of bed, and the balance of the play transpires as a dream sequence. Joyce has already appeared onscreen in a sneaky cameo as one of the nurses, and when she reappears as Hilde, she’s quite obviously a figment of Solness’s imagination, a dream girl whose ultimate function is to lead him into the white light.

This dorky Wizard of Oz conceit introduces a number of logical and thematic problems into Ibsen’s carefully wrought play: it transposes the action to the modern age, creating various social incongruities, and it makes a hash of the subplot in which Knut Brovik is dying. (If Brovik is near death himself, what is he doing at Solness’s bedside? And what happens to Ibsen’s notion of the younger generation vanquishing the older if mentor and protege are racing each other to the grave?) More unfortunately, it literalizes what Ibsen took great pains only to suggest: that Hilde shows up at Solness’s door not to restore his lost youth, but to spur him on to his next one.