Note: This review has recently been republished on Devtome.
Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley, is a good example of the type of character and dialogue driven independent film that is too nuanced and slow paced for the average movie audience. It stars Michelle Williams as Margot, a young married woman who very tentatively slips into an affair with her neighbor Daniel, played by Luke Kirby.
Take This Waltz has certain contrivances and affectations that will alienate certain viewers as well as critics. The way that Margot and Daniel meet, for example, is more than a little farfetched. Not knowing that they live within a stone’s throw from one another in Toronto, they just happen to meet at an obscure historical reenactment event in Novia Scotia. They also happen to be sitting next to one another on the plane ride home.
What I admired about the film was the way it did not make Margot’s choice between Daniel and her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) easy. Both men are portrayed as decent people who truly care bout Margot. Everything about the film is ambiguous and fluctuating. While some people may find this disturbing, this is actually more like real life (though the film can hardly be considered realistic in other ways).
Margot and Lou have an odd but believable relationship that contains lots of teasing and flirting alternating with hostility. While Margot seems restless and not particularly happy, we sense that this is something intrinsic to her and not really Lou’s fault. Lou’s sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) adds a dimension to the movie. She is a recovering alcoholic who is almost as outspoken and unpredictable as Silverman is in real life.
As played by Williams, Margot is revealed as a fascinating yet frustrating character. Her facial expressions are constantly shifting between smiles and frowns and she conveys sense of being confused and adrift. While we can sympathize with her actions as she spends more and more time with Daniel, we can also sense that it will be hard for things to end well for anyone involved. All of the performances in Take This Waltz are excellent, and the script keeps us completely uncertain about the future for these characters.
One of the things that I found a little irritating about the film is that it inhabits a kind of indie film fantasy world where ordinary factors such as economics barely apply. Everyone seems to live in near luxurious circumstances despite the fact that no one has a real job. Margot is a writer who confesses that she hardly ever writes. Lou is a writer of cookbooks who spends the day experimenting with recipes. Indeed, one of Margot’s complaints is that he’s always cooking chicken.
Although late in the film it is revealed that one of his books becomes a big success, this doesn’t explain how they maintain a spacious apartment in a fashionable neighborhood up till that point. Daniel is a rickshaw operator who seems to always be free during the day to pursue Margot. Towards the end of the film, we see a montage sequence where two of the characters are living in a vast loft that looks like something out of Architectural Digest.
These issues don’t directly lessen our enjoyment of the film, but they do undercut its credibility in a subtle way. Take This Waltz is certainly not the only movie that is guilty of this, of course. It seems that many filmmakers feel that audiences want to be reassured that all of their characters live a life of relative luxury and can spend their days focusing on their emotions and relationships.
Take This Waltz gets its name from a Leonard Cohen song, which is played during the film. Despite some quibbles about contrivances and economic unrealities, I enjoyed this film and admire the way Polley micro-focuses on conversations and minute changes in emotional atmosphere. This is exponentially more complex than the type of relationships portrayed in a mainstream romantic comedy.
Sarah Polley, though still in her early 30s, has had a long career as an actress. After some roles as a child actress, she appeared in films such as The Sweet Hereafter (1997)Go (mentioned in the chapter on Ensemble Films), and Guinevere (1999). She also directed Away From Her (2006) and the documentary Stories We Tell (2012).