Take This Waltz
If you are going to name your film after a Leonard Cohen song, you better be prepared to take your audience on a wise, pathos-filled, poetic journey worthy of one of our best balladeers. Writer/Director Sarah Polley’s (Away From Her) sophomore effort Take This Waltz mostly delivers on that promise, thanks to a stunning performance from its leading lady, Michelle Williams.
Williams’ face has an unparalleled ability to whisper complex emotion; hidden beneath her radiant and delicate eyes lies a kingdom where — to borrow Cohen’s lyrics from the title song — “death comes to cry.” Her heartbreaking performances, which perpetually push her characters to the brink of tears, are no doubt informed by ledgers of real life trauma.
Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn as Marilyn Monroe, she offers us another deeply conflicted portrait with Margot, a wandering soul who experiences the seven-year-itch after a mere five. Married to the affable, loyal, and not particularly sexy Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook writer who specializes exclusively in chicken dishes, Margot thinks she has resigned herself to sleeping in the bed she’s made. But during a business trip to Nova Scotia (she writes pamphlets for various Canadian tourist attractions), she meets Daniel (the hunky Luke Kirby), an artist lacking ambition who makes a living as a rickshaw driver. If poultry best characterizes Margot’s husband, Daniel is more of a juicy Tenderloin that she wants to devour. He’s also coincidentally and (in)conveniently her neighbor across the street in Toronto. Like most red meat, he’s unhealthy for Margot’s heart.
Or is he? That’s essentially the question that Polley wants us to consider in this exploration of the limits of monogamy: do we stick with the reliable daily plate of chicken or do we let our cravings for other fish in the sea get the better of us? We wince as we witness the temptation of Margot, and at the same time we’re conflicted. Lou is a mensch who understands and supports her, and yet we recognize the lack of passion in their home. Do we really want her to throw away a loving marriage for an unpredictable rickshaw driver?
Although this dance of desire begins as a classic tale of adultery, we are neither in the moralistic world of Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful, nor Clint Eastwood’s tedious and tortured Bridges of Madison County, nor the sweet and wistful embraces of John Carney’s Once. Polley is after something more subtle, complex, and ultimately more heartbreaking.
As Lou’s alcoholic sister Geraldine, Sarah Silverman unexpectedly clarifies that message for us at the end of the film. She’s surprisingly convincing in this very serious role, which requires her (and Williams) to bare everything in a gratuitous full-frontal gym shower scene. Polley’s lyrical film is packed with visual metaphors (spinning carnival rides, kisses through windows, underwater embraces, lighthouses) that would make Cohen proud; perhaps Silverman’s snatch is yet another loaded image begging for our consideration. Love, after all, is a hairy and unpredictable affair.