Late to the Dance but Please ‘Take this Waltz’

By: Daniel Reynolds

A woman prepares muffins. We see her sit by the window of the oven, waiting. Her face seems filled with questions. Perhaps they’re only small, but there is a distinct impression that bigger concerns are on her mind. We are drawn to her and what she is thinking about. We gradually learn that she’s wondering about the forces of attraction and being in love. Actually, scratch that. We learn that while the recipe of her life appears set, she finds herself saying I love you to someone and wondering why. This is where we find ourselves in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz.

Michelle Williams. Longing personified.

The woman, played with a casual luminescence by Michelle Williams, is Margot. She is a writer, of a sort, married to Lou (Seth Rogen), an author of cook books. He’s a lovable dude, maybe a bit dopey (he’s working on a chicken cook book after all), but he cares. They’ve been married around five years, are childless, and live in a quaint semi-detached home in the Queen/Dufferin area of Toronto. The background of these people is drawn in broad strokes. We don’t learn a lot about their past, how they met, etc. We see a bit of his family but none of hers. We are given enough context to get a feel for the tenor of the relationship they currently possess. But what is that relationship? With the appearance of a third character, Daniel (Luke Kirby), the film quickly establishes that Margot no longer seems to know.

Take This Waltz is the second film from Sarah Polley. Her first, Away From Her, was another emotionally specific film about an elderly couple dealing with a rapidly degenerating mind and the guilt and anguish that go along with it. Like Take this Waltz, it creates a situation that is unlike most films, dealing with people rarely seen on movie screens.  Here we have a remarkable film that carefully balances its tremendously romantic and sensual tone with heavy moral questions about love, romance and family.

To reiterate, this is a heavy film. It builds its tone with vivid cinematography and a hip ear for music, but it loses some traction as its characters slide into a certain, somewhat humourless, unreality (I’m trying very hard to not call it a quirky indie film. Polley is better than that). Lou and Margot live happily, but then, when she meets Daniel, it is as if a lost piece of a puzzle has been found and replaced. Suddenly, the tiny seams in Margot’s life begin to show and chaff against her.

Rogen and Williams.

Flexing his dramatic acting muscles, Rogen presses as much as he can. He is fantastic at generating a certain kind of sympathy, the sad hang dog dope just looking for a safe embrace, but anger eludes him. His Lou is a character of almost child-like devotion. Kirby, on the other hand, is stuck playing something of a cipher. In fact, Daniel is essentially the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream girl. He pulls a rickshaw, paints as a hobby, and has no problem finding all sorts of awesome apartments in the city to rent. Their characters are obvious opposites, both offering perhaps a different type of love.

It should be noted that yes, I felt compelled to watch this movie and write about it because Toronto gets a starring role. I admit to deriving a weird dissociative pleasure from recognizing the familiar places of my city. Really, I can’t imagine what it’s like for people from New York or LA or Paris. I can’t recall an instance on film of Toronto being so lovingly photographed (though, Lord knows, Atom Egoyan has tried). Kensington in the morning, Trinity-Bellwoods Park in the afternoon, Little Italy at night. The joy of these simple scenes can even get me to overlook the creative geography used as the starring couple arrive at the Royal Cinema on College from the east, despite allegedly living at Queen/Dufferin. But no matter!

The heart of the film, as you would expect, is Michelle Williams’ Margot. She dances so carefully in the frame. Her eyes suggest multitudes, absorbing everything, casting glances. A sequence on the Scrambler on Centre Island crystallizes exactly why she is perfect for the role. The ride moves along its prescribed path, the music blasting, the lights strobing, and her eyes move from delight, to caution, to acceptance, to… something. The lights come on, the ride ends, and you sink with her into an undefinable despondency. It is as moving a sequence you’ll see on film this year (especially for one that is playing Video Killed the Radio Star in the background). Williams fosters such empathy, connecting the audience with a woman who essentially is trying to talk herself into cheating on her husband. It is the key to the entire film.

As the final third glides towards its conclusion, we enter into an almost dream-like state with time passing and feelings changing. Yes, perhaps love can make life zoom by even in the most mundane of times, however the film reminds us with some late-breaking plot developments from sister-in-law Sarah Silverman (whom I think has found her acting niche), that real life sometimes is a cold splash of water. The dreams of the different relationship, the different life, the knowing, can just as quickly dissolve. And as one older lady in the film comments: The new eventually becomes old.

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