Take This Waltz
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman
One of the first things we see Margot (Michelle Williams) do in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is gently flog an adulterer while visiting an old fashioned theme park. Waves of anxiety and embarrassment wash over her face as the other people in the crowd laugh at both her and the obnoxiously over-the-top characters performing the ritual.
This scene sets up a convenient Meet Cute for Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby), but it also brings to light the stigma attached to adulterers, though in modern times the flogging is more verbal. The dual purposes of this scene are important because Margot is married, and even loves Lou (Seth Rogen), her husband of five years.
What makes Polley’s film so emotionally engaging and important is that it feels so real, almost to the point of overdoing it. Margot, Daniel and Lou are amazingly realized both in the script and by the performers that their habits and flaws may annoy you just as much as they sometimes annoy each other. This is a good thing for the most part, because getting to know the characters is crucial for Polley’s take on this generic premise to work. It is in her ability to hone in on the emotional ambiguity within this very specific milieu that differentiates it from other love triangle movies.
In fact, Take This Waltz doesn’t feel like a love triangle movie, and to lump its beautifully filmed world into that often aesthetically uncreative genre would be a mistake. Polley not only knows who these characters are but she knows the setting very well, and that really shows in the way she comfortably weaves through the story. This is evident in the energetic family gathering that greets Margot and Lou when she returns home at the beginning, with her clutching her niece and him playfully annoying his sister (Sarah Silverman).
This gathering establishes the hugely positive relationship Margot has with not just her husband, but his whole family. She is for the most part happy, it’s just that she’s starting to feel empty. Her sister-in-law, at different times a recovering and relapsing alcoholic, brings that unavoidable discontent with life up to her at different parts of the movie. Direct thematic statements like this can be annoying, but Silverman has a surprisingly convincing go at it. The scene where her, Margot and all the much older ladies shower naked in the locker room after a water aerobics class confronts this issue while also a defiantly immodest attack on the cleanliness this genre is also expected to adhere to.
In fact the movie really only gets into trouble when it does become the kind of movie Polley is trying to avoid. Its most awkward patch is in that Meet Cute beginning, which forces Margot and Daniel together in increasingly unrealistic ways. After their encounter at the old fashioned park, they are then are shoved together again on the airplane ride back to Toronto, where they then learn they live across the street from each other. Thankfully this is the only time it feels forced and unrealistic.
What ultimately saves those early scenes is the warmth Michelle Williams radiates from her character and the beautiful way they are filmed. Polley truly has a knack for pacing, and here she shows even more of a command of film language than in her 2006 breakout feature Away With Her. That film, about a young couple forcibly drifting apart because of Alzheimer’s, was decidedly sadder if no less engaging.
Margot is not a tragic figure, nor is she punished for pursuing a man outside her marriage. Take This Waltz drifts between romance and character study almost effortlessly, charting her experiences and desires just as much with gestures, longing glances and smiles as with words. The annoying, familiar habits Margot and Lou have demonstrate both their affection with each other and their quietly increasing disdain. She realizes Daniel isn’t any better, he’s just different. Sometimes that’s enough.