Friday, June 29, 2012

English Canadian Cinema’s Failures Continue: Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz

Luke Kirby and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz.

I’ve long since given up on English Canadian cinema. Unlike its consistently fine French Canadian counterpart (Les invasions barbares, Incendies, Monsieur Lazhar), movies from English Canada rarely register in terms of quality. Be it the stilted, tone-deaf movies of Atom Egoyan (Exotica, Ararat, Chloe), the one-note (of late) silent film inflected movies of Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World), or the run of the mill, unimpressive films of any number of forgettable filmmakers (too many to list), most English Canadian movies are simply awful. They’re dull, underpopulated (as only Canadian movies made outside of Quebec can be), devoid of personality and rarely believable in terms of plotting or dialogue. In fact, with the exception of the spot-on work of Don McKellar (Last Night, TV’s Twitch City) and Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, This Movie is Broken), and the occasional realistic film (Sabah; Love, Sex and Eating the Bones), most films from Anglo Canada are utterly dispensable. The latest example of our disposable cinema is Sarah Polley’s second feature film, Take This Waltz.

I must admit, I expected better from her since her credits include one superb short (I Shout Love, 2001) and a decent feature debut (Away From Her, 2006), which was marred only by Julie Christie’s mannered, unsubtle performance as an Alzheimer-afflicted woman. Take This Waltz, however, is an utter failure on every level.

Set mostly in Toronto’s trendy and artistic Queen West and Dufferin neighbourhood, the film revolves around Margot (Michelle Williams), a somewhat dissatisfied young woman who, as Take This Waltz opens, meets an appealing guy, Daniel (Luke Kirby), while she’s visiting Nova Scotia, who turns out to be her neighbour in Toronto. She’s attracted to him, but also in love with her husband of five years, Lou (Seth Rogen), who is hard at work on his first cookbook (which centres only on chicken recipes). Ostensibly, Take This Waltz follows Margot as she dithers about in deciding who she would rather be with, but mostly the film plods along without really arriving anywhere interesting. It’s also a thinly plotted 90-minute movie unnecessarily stretched out to a bloated two-hour running time.

Filmmaker Sarah Polley
Polley, who also wrote the film, lives, I believe, in the area where the movie is set. But Take This Waltz never really feels authentic. Be it the self-conscious references to Toronto landmarks and place names, or the heavy-handed attempts to remind us that this film is set in Toronto and the province of Ontario, Take This Waltz comes across as the cinematic equivalent of someone who is not comfortable in their own skin. (The two times anyone watches TV in the movie, it’s the country’s national newscast – commenting on the province’s weather – and a local current affairs show. Newsflash! More often than not, we watch American television when we’re glued to the tube.) 

The film also displays a noticeable tin ear for dialogue; when Daniel tells Margot what he’d like to do to her sexually, the dialogue is as ridiculously pulpy as that in a porn movie. No one speaks the way he does, but that pretty much sums up the whole movie’s leaden words. (Too bad Polley didn’t read the script aloud before committing to making the movie; she might have realized how off the words sound when spoken.) And like so many English Canadian movies – such as Clement Virgo’s Lie with Me, set in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood – with which I am very familiar, Polley too cannot properly integrate foreground and background in her scenes. Either the Toronto streets seem almost empty, except for its leads, or the camera pays so much attention to the crowds that you’re aware of them to such a degree that it detracts from the main characters and what they’re doing or saying.
The film is so in thrall to its ‘big’ themes (What do we really want from our life? What does love mean? Should we risk all for love?) that it also forgets to pay attention to the little details which should add realism to any story. Thus, even though we’re told at the outset that Margot re-writes travel brochures for Parks Canada, which is why she pops up in Nova Scotia, we never see her do a lick of work throughout the rest of the film. And when Daniel shows up to watch Margot do aerobics swimming exercises, his presence is noticed by Margot’s sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), but we never see her ask Margot about the guy, even though the two women are supposed to be close. Polley misses the boat throughout the movie when she’s trying to render the believable details of genuine, matter-of-fact life. The (likely to be remarked upon) explicit scene with various women of all sizes, including Williams and Silverman, naked in the shower, discussing life and men, feels poorly staged. Polley clearly wants to depict nude women without eroticism, which is fine, but the scene doesn’t flow naturally. (Check out the locker room opening of Brian De Palma’s Carrie, if you want to see how that type of scene should be done.)

Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen
In these circumstances, Williams (My Week with Marilyn, Shutter Island, Blue Valentine) does her best. She’s a fearless actress, in doing full nudity and evincing raw emotions, but Margot remains a supremely opaque character. There’s simply not much Williams can do here to make her come alive, despite the dramatic set pieces Polley gives her. At first, Kirby seems to be a slam dunk – his early scenes display a comfortable masculinity and charm – but Polley has neglected to give him a back story. He seemingly has no friends and no family, paints for himself, but brings in the bucks as a rickshaw driver who transports passengers around the city’s streets. (Now that’s a profession you see every day!) Daniel becomes less and less compelling as the film goes on. 

As for Lou, Rogen’s a limited actor who long ago wore out his welcome in Knocked Up and his shtick – Lou and Margot like to lob scenarios at each other whereby they commit violence on each other – becomes increasingly tiresome. Rogen, who can and often has been obnoxious on screen, is relatively toned down. But he’s also saddled with obvious symbolic metaphors. (Clinging to his proposed cookbook, Lou, unlike Daniel, won’t venture outside his comfort zone.) Only Silverman does something with her character. Making her an alcoholic struggling to stay sober, though, is a tired plot point there just to contrast Margot’s emotional concerns with Geraldine’s more prosaic difficulties. There are also a few party scenes in the film, but they don’t feel too genuine, either, though I liked Feist’s quirky take on Leonard Cohen’s rousing song “Closing Time.” Cohen’s “Take This Waltz” eventually makes its appearance, as you’d expect from the movie’s title, but it’s used as a backdrop to one of Polley’s least imaginative and most clichéd sequences.

Heavy handed dialogue aside, Take This Waltz may have initially read well on paper, but it's still beyond Polley’s grasp. After all, she did have writer Alice Munro’s incisive, poetic words to rely upon when adapting Away From Her, and talented actress Kristen Thomson (I, Claudia) to anchor (and perhaps help conceive) I Shout Love. Left to her own devices in Take This Waltz, Polley falls flat. And in the process, she helps cement English Canada’s ongoing and lamentable reputation for making movies that fail to reflect the way we really live.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, and has just finished teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.

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