Take This Waltz – review
by buytoday | on August 19, 2012
Five years ago, the actress Sarah Polley made an impressive debut as writer-director with Away From Her, an adaptation of her fellow Canadian Alice Munro’s superb New Yorker story The Bear Came Over the Mountain. It’s about a professional couple in rural Ontario who, after 44 years of marriage, have to come to terms with the wife developing Alzheimer’s disease, and it brought a well-deserved Oscar nomination to Julie Christie. Polley’s second film, Take This Waltz, based on her own original screenplay, also involves the confrontation of a crisis in a Canadian marriage but this time featuring a much younger couple. The result is equally remarkable and immensely moving.
The film is seen almost entirely from the point of view of Margot, a 28-year-old freelance journalist, and Michelle Williams, one of the cinema’s most versatile performers (her recent roles have included a troubled working-class woman in Blue Valentine, Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn and a pioneer wife in the realistic western Meek’s Cutoff) brings an extraordinary depth and complexity to the character.
She’s been married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen touching in one of his more serious films), a cheerful, humorous, slightly overweight cook currently writing a book on different ways of preparing chicken, and they live in the attractive Portugal Village in downtown Toronto, a distinctively old-fashioned, quasi-bohemian area far removed in tone from the gleaming skyscrapers that define the appearance of Canada’s largest and most prosperous city.
But the film begins elsewhere, in a much older part of the country, Louisbourg, an early 18th-century French settlement in Nova Scotia, now largely a colourful holiday resort, which Margot is visiting to write material for a travel brochure. This subtle, carefully staged, highly detailed opening sets the emotional and thematic scene for the rest of the film. Attending a historical re-enactment of an early colonial settler being paraded by the militia and humiliated for adultery, Margot is invited to whip the offender. When she hesitates, a handsome young man in the crowd urges her on. They meet again on a plane returning to Toronto and exchange the kind of intimate talk strangers often enter into with the expectation of never meeting again, even if perhaps they secretly hope to. She’s been brought on to the plane in a wheelchair and she says this is due to her phobia about travelling. It’s not a fear of flying but of being scared of connections, being lost in some empty terminal, of “being in-between things”.
By a stroke of coincidence or an act of fate, it turns out that this attractive, mysterious stranger lives in her street, having recently moved in. He’s Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist who’s been making sketches in Louisbourg and supports himself by taking people around Toronto in a rickshaw. Given the city’s climate, that would seem to be a seasonal occupation and fortunately this is a particularly long, hot summer. Everyone is relaxed and dressed down (though on a slightly formal occasion Margot dresses up in a revealingly girlish gingham dress) and gradually a relationship springs up between Daniel, the artist who’s fearful of exhibiting, and Margot, the writer who doesn’t know what to write about.
This is in effect a modern version of Brief Encounter in a society where the constraints may be different (no one will be paraded around the town labelled as an adulterer), but the emotional and ethical risks remain significant and personal. Margot is discontented with the routines her married life has fallen into, despite having in Lou a kind, tolerant, flexible man to comfort her. He’s a much less conventional figure than Celia Johnson’s husband in Brief Encounter. Lou’s large family has provided a warm, welcoming nest and in his sister, the recovering alcoholic Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), she has a witty, vulnerable confidante.
The movie proceeds by parallel events that echo each other – jokily conducted sex with Lou, for instance, is followed shortly thereafter by truly arousing virtual sex with Daniel who sits in a bar describing in erotic detail his desire for Margot. The reality of modern Toronto is contrasted with the romanticism of the idyllic recreated Nova Scotia, and the allure of the latter provokes Margot into taking the momentous decision to follow the compass of her uncertain heart. The movie cleverly builds up to an extended coda in two parts that reflects on the wisdom or otherwise of that old Sinatra standard, The Second Time Around. One part is realistic, as Lou and Margot quietly, ruefully consider what has happened to them.
The other is an elaborate montage of Margot’s transformed life, which may be going on in her mind: uninhibited sex, sometimes involving threesomes, in a grand open apartment that resembles a ballroom, through which the camera makes waltz-like swirling, 360-degree movements encompassing several seasons. This is accompanied byLeonard Cohen singing Take This Waltz, his mysterious version of Federico García Lorca’s Little Viennese Waltz, a surreal, erotic poem of love, death, longing and desire.
Take This Waltz is so truthful and honest a film that on the rare occasions it hits a false note or becomes over-explicit or sentimental, it really jars. Like the Cohen song, Polley’s movie touches on familiar feelings and evokes common experiences in a way that goes beyond what can be explained or paraphrased.
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