Take This Waltz played to a crowded house at deadCENTER film festival last Friday, a time during which I sat in a crowded room with an isolating tension working inside me. Surely those others in the room felt as uneasy. The movie concerns a young marriage that could fall apart. But thoughout this is a movie about the potentialities of infidelity, and it’s not the infidelity that is unsettling, but rather the realities that bring it into being.
Negative reviews of Take This Waltz (available on Netflix) have been bothered by aspects such as the film’s “preciousness” (the home décor, the particular lighting, Michelle Williams in general) and its “self-conscious unselfconscious realism” (i.e. showing naked women, pretty and not pretty, in a public shower scene). I can acknowledge that these qualities exist, but I think it’s more useful to think about the dilemmas with which the script concerns itself. A little of the ways through the movie it seemed to me this was the most significant thing Polley was trying to do was to be honest about marriage for a young couples today. The most pressing question posed by the film is this: If my marriage is not fulfilling, should I leave it?
Michelle Williams plays Margot, a girl who is 5-years settled in her marriage with Lou (Seth Rogen), an author of cookbooks. They share many sincere moments had with good humor that convince us of their general state of happiness. He cooks for her, provides, but sometimes is too quiet in conversation when they go out to eat–he lacks a certain kind of spontaneity. The hang-up is when Margot meets the alluring Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a flight home. Turns out he lives across the street from the couple. He pulls people for rickshaw rides for a living, but in the secret heart of his apartment he has many unfinished paintings the world will never see.
One of these paintings is of the two sided version of Margot—as envisioned by the artist. He draws her into his space, and shows her what no one else is invited to see. She is flattered. Her husband works so much she’s not able to always enter the world of romance. She wants more. This attraction leads to an overlong phone sex style talk that happens at a café table, and is intended to seduce, but loses its flow to absurdity (or maybe acting) after the first few lines. Sometimes Daniel creepily hangs on tightly to the fringes of the frame, waiting for Margot to go out into the world so he can follow her. This dance goes on for a while and should ostensibly yield wave-sized emotional results. The answer to the film’s question, then, seems to be: my husband is sweet, a good cook, and takes care of me, but this marriage is not good enough.
Williams has proven very adept at inhabiting emotionally complex women. The danger of her being so good at this is that she will encourage many of her viewers that certain young women who are torn between two different men to think they are more interesting than they really are. If one thinks about Williams’s anguished, and somewhat boring, performance long enough might they begin to wonder if freedom isn’t its own kind of prison? The character Margot really doesn’t prove herself exceptional in any way, and the audience is likely to side with Lou, as he is played sweetly by the most unaffected actor in the film, Seth Rogen. The root of the problem is of course in our age, all of us who know we have 10,000 choices, and feel in our interesting hearts that each one of them could be as beautiful and artistic as the purchase of an iPad. I have seen so many stories about this kind of conflict before (in real life and on screen: Blue Valentine, Revolutionary Road, The Hours) … that I am starting to wonder if the most revolutionary thing a heroine could do on screen is to go join a convent.
However, considerable thought and beauty have gone into Polley’s exploration. Here she is working within a quietly ambitious style that blends expressionism and naturalism. There’s a hazy orange glow to the film. Perhaps Polley’s filter is prettiest when the sun is shining on Michelle Williams’s forever fleeing hair. The director breathes an intensity into a regular Canadian-hipster borough. While the characters inhabit a world of behavior that is like one we’ve known, the director seems to view the events as happening in another dimension, in the dream life of living fantasy.
Sometimes the tense and ethereal vibe does not yield the intended arresting moment. During one scene Margot and Daniel meet at a pool for some night swimming. A kind of flirtatious ballet ensues underwater, one that ends when Daniel touches her leg thus breaking the spell. One cannot explain fully why this doesn’t work, but it probably has to do with a lack of character depth written for Daniel: a flaw I spotted early when he confessed to Margot his charming fear of showing his art to people. Shy, riddled with insecurities, and borderline stalkerish does not make a character more sympathetic either.
By the end of the film the two lovers finally confront the surging momentum of their tryst. First in a dream, then in reality, as Margot leaves her marriage. Part of the inadequacy of the movie is that in the climax, where Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz plays, a carousel camera take us rushing through time. We see the couple eventually engaging in threesomes, to make things more interesting. The seducer, Daniel, had previously teased Margot to the effect that she was bored in her marriage. But, in the same token, the Daniel character never shows us more than a singular romantic persistence: the predator’s heated drive. A relationship with him sustains itself by introducing new sexual embellishments.
The last shot shows Margot, in all her complexity, alone at a place of former bliss. The ending indicates that chasing the sublime always ends in facing the reality of all that was lost to the chase, and perhaps that two people can never be together completely. But the characters have not done enough to really make us feel this comedown. The message for me more banal than I had expected from Polley’s film: it will even take some work to make the hot mysterious (if not kind of creepy) guy across the street more interesting.
I don’t think this message is lost on Polley at all, the film winds through the highs and the lows, but the message may be lost to a young audience who finds the dalliance to be a fun adventure. It is a credit to the director’s wisdom to show when fantasy snaps off into cold reality like a cheap light bulb. This rupture happens at least three times and, besides the fights and erotic build-ups, these instances lend an aggressive edge to the film, a quality that should be highly praised in film at this time.
If I was feeling tension about all the memories of relationships past, then by the end Polley’s steady gaze had me squirming at something new. Sarah Silverman’s Geraldine, sister to Rogen’s Lou, anchors a sub plot worthy of Polley’s intelligence. Geraldine is a recovering drunk, and deposits blunt wisdom to the pretty and often naïve Margot. She insistently keeps herself busy with things like swimming exercise classes. For this role Silverman is a natural at burying weakness under a veneer of funny girl bravado. Polley sets up a party scene for us. The whole party is drinking while Geraldine toasts to the party with Perrier in her hand. She jokingly thanks them for all drinking in front of her. Everyone thinks this is funny. At the end of the film Geraldine crashes her car in front of her brother’s house. I probably didn’t expect this to happen for the same reasons that the rest of the cast didn’t: I didn’t want to deal with it. Margot is now away with Daniel, and has been away from her friendship with Geraldine for a while.
“This is what I do,” Geraldine tells her family and Margot, who are all shocked. But how could they be shocked? Was it not boiling the pot to throw that kind of party in front of and for a struggling alcoholic? Did Geraldine not fall into Margot’s blindside when she picked up another flirty thread in Daniel? Polley sees this careless and widely accepted group behavior very clearly, as clearly as the drunk seems to see everyone else, and has put it on film. Geraldine stumbles out of her car with a box of baby chickens as the police wait to carry her away. The image throws a sad and strange glow over our notion of a party, community, and family. At moments like this it seems to me that Polley is working with a striking tenderness, one that at its best can connect the minds and hearts of isolating experiences to a wider representation.
But this is not a new angle for Polley. Away from Her is a 2007 film that tells the story of a 40 year marriage that reaches its twilight as the woman experiences the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is a subtle examination of how two people, and later, how a whole retirement home of people, learn to take care of each other. The film’s music (From Bach to Neil Young), acting, drifting camerawork and the vast snowy landscape converge on you like a soft dream of the clearest perception. The characters are academics, so as complicated as the younger lovers of Waltz, but something about the frailty of their moment in time lets us see them like anyone else, people with a load of memories in their mind who are starved for some bit of simple humanity.
Polley directed this, her first feature film, at the age of 28. She prefers to work closely with the actors. There is even a very particular way she instructs Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, McCabe and Mrs. Miller) to play Fiona– a bright, elusive spirit who has been stricken with forgetting, but nevertheless falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart in the retirement home. Polley had to work at convincing the veteran actress to come back on screen.
It was adapted from a short story by fellow-Canadian Alice Munro called The Bear Came Over the Mountain–a loose reference to Norse myths studied by the Fiona‘s husband Grant in the story. The film won Polley an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and an actress nod for Christie.
Polley had no intimate experience with Alzheimer’s outside of research she’d done on her own over the years. As a kid she had spent time in a retirement home with her grandmother for three years. Something else would seem to account for the way she responded to the short story. Away From Her details the slow erosion of memory in a relationship, but through flashback and a few plot twists it remains at its core a study of how love between two people is an ever evolving, devolving, fluid phenomenon, even when illness and aging begins to split those two people apart. There were past infidelities on Grant’s part, and on Fiona’s part she finds love again just sitting at the bridge table with a man named Aubrey, forgetting about her husband. But Grant stays around, killing time with other patients and family, waiting to see if his wife comes around. Amid some static air that Polley somehow creates, we never doubt they are together, and have been all this time.
In Take This Waltz, we are held at a distance, except for glimpses. In Away from Her, we are very much inside. What the film better illustrates than Waltz does, is how affections and memory work in the mind of a single person, which ends up being enough information to fill a planet. And even then we still don’t know everything because the feeling you’re left with is that we are all infinite microcosms of personality.
Where does this kind of story telling arise from? It turns out as a child actress Sarah Polley landed the role of Ramona Quimby in the TV series Ramona. She was called “Canada’s Sweetheart” after starring in the television show Road to Avonlea. In 1994 the twelve year old Polley left this show. She had attended an awards ceremony wearing a peace sign in protest of the first Gulf War. Disney Executives, interested in expanding the show to the U.S., asked her not to do it. She did anyway, and after some disagreements left the show.
Polley then began activities in Canada’s New Democratic Party. In 1995, she lost two back teeth after being struck by a riot police officer during a protest against the Provincial Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris in Queen’s Park. She was later involved with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
Growing into adulthood, and after winning some Genies (Canadian awards), Polley appeared in the critically lauded art film The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan–whom she will later frequently call to bounce ideas off of. She also appeared in the hip American film Go alongside an emerging Katie Holmes. In 2000 she was cast to play the role of Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but dropped out at the last minute to work on a low-budget Canadian film. The Penny Lane role wins Kate Hudson an Oscar nod and launches Hudson’s acting career.
In 2009 Polley made a short film she thought was for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Polley took her name off the film when she found out it may be used as a marketing exercise for Becel margarine. She has been divorced once and is currently married to a Canadian law clerk.
Some of this history speaks to the toughness of Take This Waltz’s better moments. One can read it as the biography of a willful personality for whom acting wasn’t enough. In the history of auteur style directors there’s a list of strong and polarizing personalities. These people often have to stand apart to see the dimensions of human character and the events those characters cause. Polley certainly seems to be using some clear perspective to make some of the most unique and sensitive movies around, and during a time when movies are getting more and more desensitized to things like dying, cursing, human relations, aesthetics, character and on and on. What specifically left Polley open to transmit the miracle of Away From Her, though, is still hard to pin down If one tries maybe its something that lies somewhere around her biography, a library and the winds of her beloved Canada.
Polley says that while filming Away From Her she didn’t see anything unusual about making the movie. It was only after the fact that she thought it might be sort of strange. She only had the characters from the short story that she couldn’t get out of her head. So she made the film, and got it out of her system. After the release of Away From Her many people approached Polley with their own personal experiences with the disease. Minds and hearts of isolating experiences were given wider representation.