Take This Waltz (Canada/Spain/Japan, 2011)June 25, 2012
Michelle Williams must have an affinity for appearing in movies about melancholy relationships. Although Take This Waltz is by no means as big a downer as Blue Valentine, neither does it adhere to Hollywood formulas about how romantic dramas should advance. And, while the narrative suffers from instances of contrived plotting, there's never anything remotely artificial about the three all-too-human protagonists, who are trapped in a love triangle none of them wants and which causes nothing but sadness and hurt. Take This Waltz takes a wrong turn late in the proceedings as it hammers home a central theme in a hurried and awkward manner, but the film's emotional truth and honesty allows us to forgive a great many flaws.
A number of years ago, I knew a girl who was addicted to the so-called "Honeymoon phase" of relationships. She relished the heady early days with a new boyfriend, filled as they were with passion, sexual discovery, and excitement. Over time, however, no matter how devoted and loving the guy, she became bored and started looking elsewhere. She would eventually move on and the cycle would repeat itself. Take This Waltz is a commentary on the universality of this behavior. We as human beings yearn for new, shiny things. Once we have them, however, and have played with them, they become old and familiar and the desire for something new asserts itself. The movie is about the pain of resisting temptation and the perhaps greater sorrow of yielding to it.
Margot (Michelle Williams) is a happily married woman living in a small house in Toronto. Her only complaint about her husband, Lou (Seth Rogan), is that, in preparation for a cookbook he is writing, he spends too much time in the kitchen making chicken dishes. They have been married for five years and, although there is much affection between them (evident in little games they play with one another), there is no passion. Writer/director Sarah Polley is careful in depicting their domestic bliss as one of routine and platonic love. When they're naked with each other, it's in the bathroom not the bedroom. Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), the new neighbor, whose open manner and genial personality is a magnet for Margot, who is full of fears, insecurities, and wants. She flirts with Daniel and their "innocent" talk comes dangerously close to crossing a line of intimacy when he tells her in graphic detail how he would touch her body if she would let him. But, of course, she won't - because she's married, loves her husband, and couldn't bear the pain an affair would cause to him. But resisting temptation doesn't remove it. In fact, it makes things more acute - and Margot and Daniel end up miserable and feeling trapped.
The acting goes a long way toward selling the story, which goes through patches of only-in-the-movies coincidence (the most obvious of which relates to the way Margot and Daniel meet, but is not limited to that). Michelle Williams is excellent as usual; she finds the flawed woman in Margot and nurtures it. She is not merely a potential adulteress (and one could argue that, even without a physical relationship, her interaction with Daniel crosses bounds of propriety) but someone trapped by yearnings and fears she cannot conquer. Margot smiles and laughs only in those instances when she can lose herself in the moment; the rest of the time she is timid and morose. As Lou, Seth Rogen sets aside his penchant for silliness and plays the role completely straight. He is instantly likeable - not a typical quality for the "other man" in a romance. Luke Kirby is equally effective, displaying more than just charm. Daniel loves Margot but, more importantly, he respects her. Finally, an underused Sarah Silverman shows dramatic chops in a supporting part as Geraldine, Margot's friend and sister-in-law. Silverman's character, a recovering alcoholic approaching her one-year sobriety anniversary, is interesting enough to warrant her own movie.
Polley could be considered guilty of over-emphasizing her theme. It is expressed openly during a locker room shower scene with Margot, Geraldine, and another woman. The frontal nudity from the three actresses can be a distraction, but the dialogue is important since it spells out where the movie will go. The manner in which Polley elects to film the gang shower scene makes a statement about how nakedness is often misused in Hollywood. It's a clinical, non-erotic sequence and in addition to depicting the bodies of Williams, Silverman, and Jennifer Podemski, Polley shows several other women whose physiques are unlikely to be the subject of male fantasies. And, although there are mid-range shots that hide nothing, all of the close-ups are of faces only. Polley's intent is clear - send a message that there's nothing wrong with the nude female form but that mainstream movies have confused eroticism with nakedness, and the two are not necessarily synonymous.
When one considers Polley's career, which has included acting in films like the sublime The Secret Life of Words and directing Away from Her, it should come as no surprise that Take This Waltz refuses the formulaic approach to a common situation. The Hollywood standard would be to amplify the melodrama and rely on chemistry. Polley, on the other hand, de-emphasizes plot in favor of character development. In the end, Take This Waltz is not about who Margot ends up involved with but whether she grows as a person. The last scenes provide a clear answer to that question.
Take This Waltz (Canada/Spain/Japan, 2011)
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman, Jennifer Podemski
Screenplay: Sarah Polley
Cinematography: Luc Montpellier
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
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