Has a movie so full of color and quirk ever been as heartbreaking as “Take This Waltz”?
Writer-director Sarah Polley’s follow-up to 2008’s beautiful “Away from Her” is an aching look at that moment in a marriage when one partner wonders whether they’re satisfied with the status quo. So far, 2012 has been a very strong movie year, but none have gotten under my skin the way this romantic drama did.
Margot (Michelle Williams) is on her way back from a freelance writing gig when she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a cute rickshaw driver from Toronto. The two have the typical meet-cute, playfully bantering during the flight and sharing a cab back home as they blow a string back and forth, enjoying their newly discovered chemistry. Margot is surprised to find that Daniel lives across the street from her and both he and the audience are anticipating the ritual exchange of numbers and promises to reunite when she drops the bombshell.
“I’m married,” she informs him.
“That’s too bad,” he responds.
Margot is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a sweet and gentle cookbook writer. They’ve been married five years. Margot is happy with Lou, who she playfully seduces in the kitchen and makes violent sweet talk with. They have a happy home, and Margot also gets along well with Lou’s family, particularly his recovering alcoholic sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman). This film isn’t “Blue Valentine,” with Williams surviving a soured marriage. Margot loves Lou; she’s comfortable with him.
But comfort can be stifling, and Margot finds herself making up reasons to bump into Daniel on his rickshaw route. Although she doesn’t want to be unfaithful, Margot tiptoes ever deeper into an emotional affair, trading sexy banter with Daniel over margaritas, heading off for a late-night swim and stealing away to a carnival. Although she knows what she’s doing is dangerous, she can’t shut off the ache she feels for something more exciting and passionate than her daily life. How long will it be before her body follows where her mind’s already heading?
Williams gives yet another remarkable performance as Margot. By now, movie lovers are familiar with the “manic pixie dream girl” whose quirkiness and lust for life win over the male lead. But Polley’s film examines what might happen when the girl who loves to live to the fullest finds herself facing the ordinariness of marriage and the days where relationships are more functional than romantic and loving each other doesn’t always mean being “in love.”
Margot is easily unsettled–early in the film she admits to being “afraid of being afraid.” And while she loves Lou, this new encounter stirs excitement and passion that she probably hasn’t felt in awhile. What if she never feels this way again? What if she’s missing out on a life of art, exotic sex and romance in favor of comfort and familiarity?
Many movies would rush Margot’s decision and play up the plot’s tawdriness. But Polley has a more sensitive touch and never makes Margot a villain. We see how much she cares for Lou and are able to eavesdrop on their private banter, in-jokes and quiet moments. But Polley also understands that familiarity can breed contempt, and Margot–who has to fill every moment–is startled to find someone out there who pushes buttons that Lou hasn’t in awhile–he means well, but he’s sometimes too focused on his work to respond to her seductions and doesn’t understand that what he perceives as comfortable silence is actually a sign to Margot that the marriage is stalled, that there’s a gap she can’t quite fill. And Margot, so afraid of being afraid, doesn’t want to get to that moment where she’s unhappy in her marriage and starts tiptoeing closer to Daniel, believing he may be the one who can keep her involved.
It’s a complex performance by Williams–at once quirky, romantic, sad and confused, and it’s to her credit that although we may condemn some of her actions, we always understand where the character’s coming from. Williams doesn’t play Margot as quirky for quirkiness’ sake–even when she’s babbling baby talk with Lou, it’s because she’s trying to fill the empty silences with something, even if it’s nonsense. There’s something about her that can be so wistful and yet so lost, and she’s gripping every second she’s on the screen.
I’ve heard arguments that Daniel and Lou are both shallow characters, but I don’t think that’s an accident. From its first scene, Polley tells “Take This Waltz” from Margot’s perspective, and both Lou and Daniel are seen as Margot sees them. Lou is a kind, loving husband–Margot describes him as the “sweetest, most gentle person she knows,”–and Daniel is the mysterious, alluring stranger. There’s nothing wrong with Lou, aside from the fact that he can sometimes be oblivious, it’s just that he’s so normal, safe and comfortable. And Daniel has an exotic job that allows him to go with the wind, gives him time to paint and always seems to have a come-on that makes him seen ever-mysterious, even though we all know that the truth is that Daniel would eventually seem just as familiar, ordinary and boring as Lou after a few years.
Rogen is quickly establishing himself as a solid actor, and this is a nice step up for him following last year’s fantastic supporting work in “50/50.” For much of the film, Lou is just a toned-down Rogen character, the sweet guy trying to keep his wife happy. But when he’s given a chance to play with some meatier material in the final act, Rogen is fantastic and shows a range of emotions I hadn’t seen from him.
Kilby is a little more problematic. As the mysterious Daniel, I can understand why Margot is so drawn to him. But he never fooled me–Daniel never tries to talk Margot into doing the right thing or staying away and rather always seems to be daring her to come to him. I never really bought that he was genuinely in love with Margot but was just another cad trying to get laid–and while that does render the character one-dimensional, I’d argue that the fact that we can see Daniel’s motives and still understand why Margot’s so drawn to him is what Polley’s going for, and there’s a theme throughout the film of objects losing their luster and new things becoming old that speaks volumes about what Margot would be in store for if she hooked up with Daniel.
Polley also gets great use out of Sarah Silverman, an actress who Hollywood still hasn’t figured out yet. Rather than use her as snarky comic relief (although the comedienne does get a few funny lines), she’s the cynical, honest counterpoint to Margot and the surprising voice of reason near the film’s end.
As I said, I loved Polley’s directorial debut, “Away From Her,” and she continues to be a director able to get under my skin. Much of “Take This Waltz” is a delicate dance that observes Margot as she navigates her tricky situation, but in the final 30 minutes, she finally has to make a decision as to whether or not she’s going to stay with the man she loves or pursue the man who she thinks could possibly make her happy. I was fairly certain of where the film was going at this point and genuinely surprised with the direction Polley takes the story–and then fascinated, moved and rattled by the repercussions of that direction and the emotions it dredges up.
Polley’s grown as a visual director and there were several moments that helped the movie get under my skin. I loved the colorful look of Toronto and there’s a sequence on a carnival ride set to “Video Killed the Radio Star” that is one of the most wistful moments onscreen this year, with a punchline that hits right in the gut. There’s a virtuoso 360-degree tracking shot that is at once erotic, disturbing, beautiful and tragic. There’s a sequence in a women’s locker room that says more about the feminine form and the film’s themes than a 10-minute dialogue would. And–most heartbreaking to me–a tracking shot where a character makes a fateful decision and runs out of the house, past a row of pictures that speaks volumes about the roots put down by marriage and how easily they can be broken. The film is filled with bright colors, but there’s a sense of looming dread and tragedy under every scene.
Polley’s writing isn’t quite as strong as it was in the past. Her dialogue’s a tad too precious and the film has a habit of wearing its symbolism on its sleeve (proof that Margot fears marital monotony? Lou is writing a cookbook about chicken…and cooks chicken every night).
But the film overcomes those hiccups on the strength of its cast and Polley’s eye for visuals. When I turned off “Take This Waltz,” I was flustered, frustrated and moved. Over a week later, the film still has me under its spell. Its one of the best of 2012 so far.
Take This Waltz is available OnDemand. It opens in theaters in early July.