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  • ABRAMORAMA

A Master Builder, a film that opens a today, plays like the third entry in a trilogy with Louis Malle's My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street (Jonathan Demme dedicated the film to Malle, who died in 1995).

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Demme, who transformed Spalding Gray's monologue Swimming to Cambodia into a work of cinema, directs the film with minimal fuss from André Gregory's modern-dress stage version of Henrik Ibsen's Master Builder Solness, the author's 1892 follow-up to Hedda Gabler.

Gregory's one-time dinner partner, Wallace Shawn, who adapted the text from the original Norwegian, stars as the title character, a dying architect who maintains his position by controlling the people in his life, from his associate, Brovik (Gregory), to his wife, Aline (the wonderful Julie Hagerty, everyone's favorite stewardess*), until the arrival of uninvited guest Hilde (Lisa Joyce, by turns compelling and off-putting). The young woman, who laughs at inappropriate times, claims he made a promise to her 10 years before, and she intends to collect.

* Next to the late, great Karen Black, of course.

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As the two go head to head, the film recalls David Mamet's claustrophobic Oleanna, because the truth remains elusive. Is Hilde sane or crazy; real or a figment of Halvard's imagination? It's an intriguing premise, but the text feels more reflective and meditative than naturalistic Ibsen plays, like A Doll's House. Cinematographer Declan Quinn (the brother of actor Aidan) shot the film much as he did Vanya on 42nd Street and Demme's Rachel Getting Married with handheld camera and tight close-ups—all the better to bring Solness's guilt and regret into stark relief. If A Master Builder marks the weakest of the three Shawn-Gregory cinematic collaborations, the elegiac tone makes it a fitting conclusion.

For more information about A Master Builder opens today—visit Movie Times.

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