When a film takes its title from a Leonard Cohen song, you’re safe to assume it won’t be a fluffy romp. Melancholy, lust, desperation, poetry… Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz covers all the territory promised by its name, and, with the addition of a few laughs and a beautiful eye for detail, tells a morality tale about the folly of trying to fill life’s indefinable gap.
Polley’s second directorial feature introduces us to Margot (a fantastical, versatile turn from Michelle Williams), a would-be novelist living out the early years of a happy marriage with her cookery book-writing husband Lou (Seth Rogen) in a bohemian Toronto suburb.
Early on, a series of contrivances sees beautiful indie wisp Margot and Mark Ruffalo-ish artist Daniel (Luke Kirby) thrown together by fate. Their instant erotic attraction to one another means the pair then spend much of the film wanting, but resisting, to throw themselves together in the carnal sense.
Whether you feel Margot and Daniel are love’s lost dream or cruel, weak egotists is – somewhat thrillingly – left up to you by Polley, who provides scope for both interpretations, initially at least. Many will find it difficult to warm to Margot for the choices she makes, and Daniel’s character is more cipher than anything.
Like its namesake, Polley’s film is a heady portrait of sexual desire: “I want you, I want you, I want you” sings Cohen in Take This Waltz; Margot’s inner mantra to Daniel. He’s an object eroticised by Margot, seen nowhere better than in the scene her gaze is fixed on his taut, glistening muscles as he runs ahead of her, pulling a rickshaw (did I mention this was a Canadian indie populated by soulful artists who pull rickshaws? It is). This summer’s seen the publishing world rocked by the revelation that women lust. And how, says Take This Waltz.
Neither of the male leads are as fully realised as Margot. Husband Lou, winningly played by Seth Rogen, is more symbol than person. The creator of a ‘100 things to do with chicken’-type cookbook, Lou represents homeliness, comfort, a lack of variety, a lack of sex. He’s nice, comforting, and unadventurous. Seen through the self-pitying perspective of Margot – Emma Bovary in indie gingham – he’s the marital equivalent of chicken. The problem? Lou says it himself in one of the film’s many heavily loaded lines, “Margot OD’d on poultry a long time ago.”
Polley’s script is fond of such metaphor, a weakness that sometimes grates. When Margot and Daniel first meet on a plane, she expresses a fear “…of connections”, of “…being in between things”, ostensibly in reference to boarding desks and airports, though the underlying meaning won’t be lost on even the least analytical viewer. The pair’s first brief encounter takes place against the backdrop of an historical re-enactment of an adulterer’s flogging, introducing the film’s theme in no uncertain terms.
If Kirby and Williams’ love ultimately doesn’t convince, that makes Polley an even braver chronicler of female sexual desire than she already is. If it was true love, or if Lou was a brute, then Margot and Daniel could be absolved of their actions by a greater universal power. If it isn’t, then they’re just weak and willing to hurt others, which makes for a much more fascinating story.
Polley’s film is especially good on the silly intimacy of marriage, an aspect of Take This Waltz sold so well by Williams and Rogen it’s embarrassing to watch at times. Margot and Lou’s relationship is constructed from affectionate baby-talk, tickle fights and long-standing games, a universe away from Daniel’s starring moment: a sexually explicit speech in an otherwise chaste scene that leaves Margot weak somewhere other than the knees.
It’s not all self-absorption and erotic monologues, Take This Waltz has laughs too, and a great deal of beauty. Polley’s camera captures intimacy, colour and detail gorgeously. There’s an entrancing swimming pool courtship scene, and a captivatingly wordless pair of fairground waltzer rides – the first notable for its bathetic conclusion when the lights come on and Margot and Daniel’s dream suffers a rude awakening, the second for its message about individual happiness.
A nude post-aqua aerobics shower juxtaposes lithe youthful bodies with aged corpulence, hammering in the film’s insistent moral about new things getting old. It’s a message picked up by Margot’s recovering alcoholic sister-in-law Geraldine (a great turn from Sarah Silverman), who acts the Shakespearian fool, truth-telling under the motley disguise of being an old lush. “Life has a gap in it,” says Silverman’s character “…it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”
The film backs up Geraldine’s resigned message with a telling montage of a relationship’s lifespan, from initial frisson to eventual plateau, set to the lyrically inscrutable Cohen song of its title. The bed, once slap-bang in the centre of the couple’s life, is eventually displaced by a sofa and TV. Passion wanes, new things get old, life has a gap in it… As I said, not a fluffy romp, but a very compelling, empathetically told story.
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