May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
November 13, 2014
Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory shared a simple theatrical frame My Dinner With Andre. The film is quintessential art house cinema, inspired internally by a choice quote from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Malle’s two-shot framing also presages a lot of the simplicity that would later characterize American indie cinema – convinced that something other than visual flourish could drive compelling cinema. They appear again together in a similarly staged Vanya on 42nd Street. Both films are such simple ideas – one a conversation about the life and theater, the other a form of theater as intimate and present as any conversation. These two films are also shaped by the dramatic creativity of Malle and Gregory, Wallace Shawn filling out the trio with his sharp expressiveness.
Demme’s recent take on this theatrical tradition is a must-see for fans of this little troupe.
A Master Builder, dedicated to Malle, reunites Gregory and Shawn (and Larry Pine) for an adaption of Ibsen’s play. The script has many similarities to Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, though it turns in part toward flights of fancy that Demme catches reasonably well as points of cinema. Shawn plays Halvard Solness, an aging architect at the end of his career still toying with those around him like chess pieces. In this adaptation, we find Solness in severe physical decline rejuvenated by the appearance of the young Hilde, who he had met years earlier when she was still a child. When Solness first met her, he made a very creepy promise that ten years from hence he would make her his princess. Ibsen’s play is a bit more explicit about Solness’ intentions for her back then, but his perversity transmits well in the subtext of her recollection in the film.
So here she is, ten years later, and the script drifts in riveting ways through Solness’ vanity. The nature of his cruelties and obsessions develop like a Polaroid over the course of the film – each two-shot conversation a master class in tone and tension. The script leaves plenty of space to steep in its surreal attempts to balance the glory of success with the violence and perversion of ego. This story of a celebrated architect so internally disformed calls to mind some of the paintings of Bosch, whose ornate and complex architecture serve as the backdrop for orgiastic violence.
The end of Ibsen’s play is alarming, the literal tumble of a self-styled god from his great heights. Demme’s film almost falls as flat as the architect at this point. The final moments of the play just don’t translate well to film. But this otherwise riveting work of theater in the spirit of Malle’s earlier films is completely engrossing, especially when Demme’s camerawork settles down and lets us watch these performers work their magic. Lisa Joyce’s nuanced take on Hilde is alone worth checking out the film.
This is currently screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival.