9:16 am Jun. 29, 2012
There’s a homemade texture to Take This Waltz, a deeply romantic movie about an untenably romantic young woman that is also the slow motion document of a marriage’s death by infidelity.
That’s not to say it feels careless, exactly—Toronto actress and writer/director Sarah Polley’s second film is too controlled (and at times contrived) for that. It’s more like the occasional lumps and irregular shape that come with anything made from scratch, at home, and without clear instructions. The imperfection has a charm of its own, and what lingers is the heart that went into it.
If baking metaphors make you nauseous, the opening of Take This Waltz might have an unwanted effect. For a few minutes we watch Margot (Michelle Williams at her gauziest), a slight, thirty-ish strawberry blonde with a cheek-skimming bob, making blueberry muffins over a hot, sun-flooded stove. She folds the batter, wipes her brow, drops it into the muffin tin—actions we see in fragments: a shot of her ankle here, her neck or knees there, than back to a luminous splotch of muffin goo. After pushing the tin into the oven, Margot slumps down to watch them bake, wearing an inscrutable dreamy-sad expression as an unidentified man passes by. This sequence bookends a film that provides plenty of similarly delicate affectation and some moments of powerful emotional clarity in between.
What is specific is often what shines: In Away From Her, Polley’s exceptional directorial debut, those specifics include the pervasive, late-winter light that envelops the story of an older couple whose comfortable marriage cracks open when painful memories resurface on the cusp of slipping away. Here it is both Polley’s chosen setting—Toronto’s Kensington Market neighborhood—and her portrait of a certain stage of life. It’s that moment when it’s still cute—maybe even necessary—for young married couples to baby each other, when whatever raising each one’s parents left to be done is taken up by the other.
Margot is married to Ben (Seth Rogen, who brings a startling maturity to the movie’s only fully grounded performance), a chef and cookbook author who, over the course of the film, is testing recipes to compile a hundred different ways of making chicken. That’s right, he makes chicken every night—a glaring measure of his dogged consistency that Rogen fills out with affable if sexless personality. Their marriage is a cozy, co-dependent world contained by a home painted with magic hour light and lollipop colors. When they’re not doting on each other they are clashing awkwardly over an embrace that turns into a thumb war, baby talk that segues jarringly to sex, or Ben’s silence during their fifth anniversary dinner. He’s incredulous that Margot should expect them to be turned from comfy stay-at-homes to a chatty, mutually intriguing couple by a romantic setting. “We live together,” he says, “we know everything already.”
By that point Margot has gotten in fairly deep with Daniel (Luke Kirby), a painter/rickshaw driver she meets during a work trip to Louisbourg, Nova Scotia (Margot writes copy for travel brochures but has vague ambitions of doing something more). After a brief encounter they wind up as seatmates on the flight home, and discover that Daniel just lives a few doors away from Margot and Ben.
“What’s the matter with you, generally?” Daniel asks early on—that is, after Margot admits she feigns disability to be wheelchaired to airport gates because connections freak her out and directly following another one of her bruised, butterfly countenanced equivocations. “You seem restless, in a kind of permanent way.”
The problem is most obviously a sexual one, but it’s also a spiritual restlessness that Polley captures in a couple of fleeting but galvanic moments. Margot makes a point of running into Daniel, each time leading him a little closer to the brink and then backing away. In one of the most extraordinary scenes, Daniel appears to turn her into a woman over a couple of martinis and a detailed description of what he has in mind for them. Kirby is both a frank presence and a fantasy, the suave, smolder-eyed guy down the street who is equal measures elusive and available, always batting the ball back into Margot’s court. Later they ride the Scrambler on Toronto Island, and a scene that might otherwise feel torn from the indie courtship playbook is saved by sensitivity to the details—the characters’ rapidly morphing expressions, mostly, but also the choice of music: “Video Killed the Radio Star” has rarely sounded more melancholic.
Take This Waltz is a movie that unfolds, for better and worse, in heavy sympathy with its central character. Like Margot it can be elegant and lovely; it can also be over-precious and awkwardly speechy. Director and star seem to share a central nervous system, though with some of the more barbed lines (Margot makes liberal use of the term “gaylord”) I couldn’t help thinking Polley would have better served the humor Canada-dry. (Sarah Silverman is nicely cast in her sharply written part as Ben’s alcoholic sister.)
Polley is a detail-oriented director who can get a little lost dazzling us with the little things. More often she strikes with startling precision, surprising with the smallest observations and, as with the numinous final shot, revealing her heart without breaking the skin.
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