My Scattered Thoughts on Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz

For better of for worse, technology has completely changed the way we interact with cinema. No longer do we have to wait days or even months to hear early word about the latest movies. Thanks to Twitter we can find out instants after any given screening. With the latest innovations in home theater technology, watching a movie from the comfort of your own home is becoming a more and more viable option. For more and more relatively high-profile movies it is becoming an option even before the movie receives a theatrical release, thanks to new video on demand trends. There are many benefits  to this; no longer do those of us living too far from a theater showing a movie we want to see have to wait months and months to see it. The downside to having word about any given movie get out so early, though, is fewer and fewer people willing to decide for themselves whether they like anything. There are those who won’t go anywhere near any movie not playing in over 3,000 theaters across North America. Those who take pride in their intellectual superiority, having the ability to enjoy that independent little gem that general audiences are not “smart enough” to appreciate.  Those who get a kick out of being the contrarian, always having a negative opinion ready when something becomes successful. Yet, perhaps it’s the middle group who is the most conservative of all.

How often do you see sellouts at a festival for a film without a star or director that has already been given some kind of critical seal of approval prior to the screening? How many small, truly independent films become breakout hits without an amazing reception during the FIRST festival or public screening. It seems that, more and more, that first screening is a make or break moment. If it’s successful, its smooth sailing ahead for the film. If that first group of people who sees the movies isn’t ready to declare it a masterpiece, chances are no one after that will want to be the first to do so. We don’t want to take a chance on something that hasn’t already been branded hip. It’s my opinion that Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz has fallen victim to this. It had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and while reaction to it has been far from bad, it does feel a bit on the tepid side, especially in comparison to her 2006 masterpiece, Away From Her. It’s a shame because in spite of some minor flaws (the series of coincidences that set the “romance” of the film in motion seem like a bit of a stretch) it is one of the best films of the year.

While flying back home to Toronto, Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a handsome stranger with whom she shares an almost instant attraction. It could be the beginning of a wonderful story, were Margot not married as Daniel learns during a shared taxi ride back home. To further complicate things, while on the taxi they also learn that they coincidentally live just down the street from each other. As the summer goes by their flirtations escalate, causing Margot to question whether she is truly happy in her marriage to Lou (Seth Rogan). The themes explored in the movie are not new; the ecstasy of initial romantic attraction, fear of uncertainty, the lure of “shiny, new things” and the inevitability of those things becoming old too, eventually. The movie, however, benefits from sure-handed direction by Sarah Polley, its superb acting and, above all, its honesty.

Anyone familiar with Sarah Polley’s early work as an actress should be able to tell you that she has always been a special talent. Award attention, including Oscar nominations, seemed like a matter of time. What I think few would have predicted is that she would become an Oscar nominee for her work behind the camera (for writing the screenplay to Away from Her). With Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley proves she’s no one-trick pony, equally adept in front or behind the camera regardless of the material she’s working with. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is a group shower between women of different ages after water aerobics. The scene not only contrasts the physical differences between older and younger women, but also the ability for more rational thinking that can only come with age.  Polley uses this same kind of juxtaposition to give insight into the complexity of relationships and Margot’s inner turmoil. For me, the most effective juxtaposition, though, didn’t come in visual form, but from the use of music throughout the film.

The use of music to advance a narrative or simply to evoke a specific mood in film has often been the source of scrutiny. There are those who see film as primarily a visual medium. To use music instead of relying on images to tell your story is to cheat, in their minds.  Truth is, visual and aural media have gone hand in hand almost since the beginning of cinema. When done properly, I think that a piece of music can be just as memorable, if not more, than any image unfolding before our eyes.  When used symbiotically, though, music and image have the ability to truly bring a movie to life. A blast directly awakening all your senses. I find it impossible to imagine movies like Pulp Fiction without “You Can Never Tell,” Chungking Express without “Dreams” or “California Dreamin’,” Beau Travail without “Rythm of the Night” and Apocalypse Now without “The End.” Polley effectively uses several songs throughout pivotal moments in the movie, including Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” from which the movie gets its name. No other song is as brilliantly  and unexpectedly utilized, though, as The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” during an amusement park ride between Margot and Daniel. The song plays, the lights are out. For a moment Margot is able to let go of all her fears. Without fear, she lets herself go. Her body and her face relaxed and carefree. She can imagine a different type of life for herself than the one she’s currently living. It’s a side of her we only get to see a few times throughout the movie, but then the music dies. The lights come back on. Her facial muscles once again their usual tense selves. The moment is gone.

It would, of course, be difficult to imagine the scene or the rest of the movie working as well as it does with anyone other than Michelle Williams in the lead role. In addition to her Oscar nominated roles in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, she has been perfect in smaller movies like Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. Her ability to go through a full spectrum of facial emotions—always just the right expression—keeps us from turning against her character at any point during the movie. To say that she makes her character here likable would be to miss the point of it. She might not start out sexually cheating on her husband, but she’s indecisive and more than ocassionally self-absorbed; she still believes that she can have it all. That marriage should be an amusement park ride, always. She ultimately has no one to blame for her fate but herself. She’s not “likable,” but thanks to Williams and the screenplay we also understand where she’s coming from and never wish her ill. While Williams dominates the film, kudos should also be given to Polley, Rogen, Kirby and Sarah Silverman (as Margot’s alcoholic sister in law) for the effective portrayal of the principal characters across the board.

It is Sarah Silverman who, surprisingly, delivers one of the film’s most insightful, memorable, and ultimately honest lines in the film; “Life has a gap in it – it just does – you don’t go crazy trying to fill it.”  It is thanks to this honesty that the film ultimately succeeds as well as it does. There are no easy answers, no villains to blame for what happens. Love doesn’t always – or better yet, doesn’t often  – last the distance no matter how much you care about the other person. Happiness doesn’t always come down to making the right choices. The future is always uncertain and, indeed, it is in this wonderful little movie, one of the best of the year. Do yourself a favor and watch it…and let me just conclude by saying, “Bring on Polley’s third directorial effort, Stories We Tell!”

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