Take This Waltz feels like a step sideways for Sarah Polley as a filmmaker. In her previous effort, Away from Her, she directed Julie Christie to a Best Actress nomination in a devastating performance as an Alzheimer’s patient who finds herself becoming the nucleus of a frustrating love triangle — her longtime husband (Gordon Pinsent), whom she’s forgotten, on the one hand, and one of her fellow nursing-home patrons (Michael Murphy) on the other. That heavy-handed material, taken from an Alice Munro short story, called for occasionally vibrant directorial flourishes, and the balletic balancing of realistic earthiness and heightened formalism that resulted turned the film into something special.
Take This Waltz, while centering on a much younger female protagonist in a very different locale, attempts to pull a similarly binary approach, though the execution — while admirably searching and full of authorial charisma — feels sharply mixed and uneven. Part of that is narrative — if the faulty-memory stings of Away from Her made for an original three-sided romantic conflict, the same can’t be said of Polley’s Take This Waltz set-up, which rehashes a semi-happily-married woman trajectory we’ve seen countless times before.
To her credit, though, Polley is the last thing from reliant in terms of her relationship to her original screenplay, and that’s a blessing. Her treatment of the material is downright exploratory, seeming to wear the love-related concerns of Margot (an exquisite Michelle Williams, as if we should’ve expected anything less) on its very sleeve. And, indeed, the tonal jaggedness that Take This Waltz ultimately settles in to could very much be attributed to Margot’s internal crises. But while that remains a satisfying explanation of the film’s effect on paper, it’s less of one in emotional reality — the roller-coaster shifts between lived-in domesticity and sparkly-new sensual allure, in the end, play like the inner voice of an interesting filmmaker trying to rip every possible shred of insight out of a basically derivative threatened-marriage premise.
The infrequently procedural quality to Polley’s screenplay is actualized, more so than anywhere else, in the Sarah Silverman character. Playing Margot’s main confidante, Geraldine, Silverman is an instant turn-off, and the chain-smoking, former-alcoholic background does her no favors. But then we get a terrific encounter at a local swimming pool, when, after participating together in a group lesson, Polley films Margot and Geraldine — and a few others — showering together. The honest, straight-up conversation that takes place in this scene is a real pleasure, and makes for a real point of bother when compared to Silverman’s other scenes, in which she’s used like an annoying pest.
The two poles of Margot’s struggle are embodied by Seth Rogen’s Lou, a cooking extraordinaire who specializes in the chicken department, and Luke Kirby’s Daniel, a neighbor of the Toronto couple who supports himself by driving a rickshaw. The differences between the two men can be further summed-up by the disparate ways with which they spend their off-hours — Lou, when he’s not still cooking chicken, is usually caught beating an inside joke to death with the playfulness (and drained sexuality) of a young boy, while Daniel, in one of many questionably designed character moves, focuses his effort on crafting his own art, which he then hangs in spontaneously various places throughout his drifting-hipster house.
The Lou character is a lovely dramatic opportunity for the often comedy-relief-drenched Rogen, and he’s quite up-to-task, even if the role is orchestrated in a manner that reduces him to puppy-dog innocence. And the same could be said, I think, of the way Kirby’s Daniel is drilled into the stimulated-love-cauldron identity time and time again. These are one-note characterizations, no doubt made to be due to Margot’s psychological profile, but still one-note nonetheless. It becomes trying to keep watching Margot, scene after scene, as she continues to bounce back and forth between these two stagnant options.
Though Polley’s peculiarly conflicted intentions here may initially be less of a strain to other people’s experiences they were to my own, they’re made entirely crystal-clear by the time the titular Leonard Cohen reference is brought to full fruition — and the film, I imagine, will send most viewers for a whirl at that precise, hyper-stylized moment. For this viewer, however, the montage in question merely expressed — albeit rather loudly — the same disturbed-female-psyche beats that preceded it. But the nuisance of Polley’s agitation remained — just as in the moments when Rogen and Williams dish out love-coated pretend-threats to each other, or in the instance of Daniel’s audaciously extended come-on to Margot, I always sensed Polley coordinating things behind the camera. And when a filmmaker sets out to depict something authentically — especially something as oft-contemplated as the temptations of adultery — sensing that can be a seriously negative thing.
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