Take This Waltz (Director: Sarah Polley): Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort, Take This Waltz starts out looking very much like a romantic comedy, and despite efforts to change gears later, never seems to achieve the weighty seriousness it needs. The superficial sheen of coincidental meetings and deserted spaces for lovers to flirt or to talk make it hard to take what is essentially a tragic story very seriously.
Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) have been married for four years, and their domestic routine is affectionate and a bit eccentric. In other words, like most couples, they share their own private language and long-running jokes. In small doses, this can add a unique intimacy to an on-screeen relationship (I really liked the way Rashida Jones and Paul Rudd bantered in I Love You, Man, for example.) But overused, as it is in Polley’s film, it makes the characters annoying and infantile. And perhaps that’s her point. Margot and Lou never really seem to have an adult conversation.
Which makes Margot’s slow-burning flirtation with neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby) such a powderkeg. Confused by her desire for something new, Margot never really articulates to either man what it is she wants. Daniel appears out of nowhere and promises…well, what? Escape? Novelty? Temporary passion?
It’s never clear what he wants out of this flirtation either. In one more maddening rom-com touch, this powerfully attractive man has no mate, and the perfect strong-sensitive work life. He works as a rickshaw driver (macho side) but is also secretly an artist (sensitive side). He is, in fact, the perfect man.
But Lou isn’t so bad. Sure, he refuses to make conversation at their anniversary dinner (“we’re not going out to ‘catch up’!” he scoffs), but he loves her like any good husband, sometimes distractedly but never less than deeply.
We see no evidence that they’re actually bad for each other (unlike Williams’ superior turn in last year’s Blue Valentine, a film I’m sure will be drawing comparisons), so we’re left to think that Margot is simply pursuing something new and shiny.
When it turns out that it’s really Lou who learns from the affair, it makes it all the more frustrating. On the cusp of having their first real on-screen grown-up conversation, he says, “You didn’t want to have this discussion before. Let’s not have it now.” It’s one of several moments when important things need to be said. And we don’t get to hear them. It robs the narrative of the angry and hurt confrontation that not only our couple, but the audience, needs.
A series of wordless (of course) montages near the end were almost laughable in their unreality, but when I wondered if Polley was positing them as some sort of fantasy sequence, I looked back to the beginning of the film, and realized the whole beginning was equally phoney.
It’s painful to write those words, because I had very high hopes indeed for the film. And there are many things to like. My initial fear that Seth Rogen would be the weak link was unfounded; his performance, in fact, felt the strongest of the three main characters. And the cinematography, by veteran Luc Montpellier (Cairo Time, Polley’s previous film Away From Her), is gorgeous, lending Toronto a candy-coloured dream palette. It’s Polley’s script that fails for me. Perhaps she should have brought in Leonard Cohen (whose song “Take This Waltz” provided the film’s title if not its theme) for a rewrite.