Monday, September 20, 2021

Neglected Gem: Take This Waltz (2011)

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz (2011).

The opening and closing images of Take This Waltz, of Margot (Michelle Williams) baking muffins, work in tandem with the folk music on the soundtrack (written by Jonathan Goldsmith) to evoke a melancholy, pensive mood. The writer-director, Sarah Polley, is a master of moods. Take This Waltz was her second film. Her first, Away from Her (2006), was an impressive debut. Adapted from the lovely Alice Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it told the story of a man (Gordon Pinsent) whose wife (Julie Christie) persuades him to put her in a home when her Alzheimer’s worsens. Polley, one of the most talented of her generation of Canadian actresses and perhaps the brainiest – lovers of the marvelous TV series Slings and Arrows will remember her as Cordelia, opposite William Hutt’s Lear, in the show’s final season – convinced Christie, whom she’d befriended on the set of The Secret Life of Words, to delay retirement to play the ailing heroine. Christie was wonderful – hardly a surprise. And I think you can see, when you watch Take This Waltz, why she let Polley talk her into doing Away from Her. Polley thinks like an actress and a filmmaker; her directorial style comes directly out of her ability to think through a character. What Christie and Michelle Williams have in common is that you can’t tell where intuition takes over from intelligence. The work that the Australian director Gillian Armstrong did with actresses in the 1980s represented a kind of women’s collaboration that generated a more delicately shifting depiction of female characters than you got in other movies. Polley doesn’t have Armstrong’s technical expertise but what she gets from Williams in Take This Waltz (the title comes from a Leonard Cohen song) is comparable to what Armstrong accomplished with Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel and Judy Davis in High Tide.

Margot is an aspiring Toronto writer who works for the tourist bureau, writing up historical villages; her husband of five years, Lou (Seth Rogen), puts together cookbooks. Their relationship is playful, perhaps uncomfortably so for the viewer.  It feels like something they both should have grown out of, and though they love each other, there’s no evidence that either of them is pulling against it. They wrestle in the yard and soak each other with the sprinkler; he plays pranks on her. Their love talk is a series of extreme, violent threats, inspired by P.T. Anderson’s movie Punch-Drunk Love. And though they live together and sleep together, they seem to have trouble forging an adult connection. When he tries to kiss her in the middle of one of their wrestling bouts, she stops him, objecting that she doesn’t want “both together”; rejected, he grows sullen and comments angrily about her impossible demands. But then when she comes up behind him to hug him while he’s trying out a new tomato sauce, he doesn’t like it; he doesn’t want to spatter. Exasperated, she tells him that it takes courage for her to seduce him and he insists, “That’s ridiculous.” His objection doesn’t sound unreasonable – or it wouldn’t in another context – that is, in another sort of relationship. When they go to a restaurant for their anniversary, they don’t talk much; she attempts to jump-start the conversation, but he protests that he doesn’t feel the need to talk just for the sake of talking.

Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby, the young Hamlet from the first season of Slings and Arrows and more recently Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) on a business trip to Fort Louisbourg in Cape Breton, and then runs into him again on the plane back to Toronto; it turns out they’re neighbors. He’s a painter who pays the bills by ferrying customers around the streets on a rickshaw. (Polley tends to give her characters unconventional jobs, but this one is definitely the oddest.) There’s an immediate chemistry between them but she tells him she’s married and tries to stay away from him. It doesn’t work: they keep running into one another, and eventually she lets him take her out for coffee, then for a drink. Then he follows her into the pool at the local gym for a nighttime swim. Their conversations constitute a love affair even before they touch each other. Over martinis she lets him relate his fantasies about her, and his erotic monologue is so intense that when he’s done they both burst out laughing to break the tension. “These martinis,” she murmurs, as if chalking the sex talk up to alcohol, but he finishes the sentence differently than she would have: “They’re kind of redundant.” Polley wants to juxtapose Margot and Lou’s substitution of banter and games for real communication – as well as their silence over their anniversary dinner – with Margot and Daniel’s attempt to express their burgeoning feelings for each other, which they can’t act on, through the only way they can get to each other, language. We understand, just as they do – and it terrifies Margot – that their words will inevitably lead to lovemaking.

Some of the script is overwritten but the writing has real feeling, and you can see the ideas even when they don’t quite ignite. And whatever shortcomings are in the script are more than compensated for by the direction, which is poetic and allusive, and by the acting. Polley gets a fine performance out of Kirby and an utterly surprising one out of Seth Rogen after he’d become famous as the shlumpy clown from the Judd Apatow movies. I was at sea throughout Knocked Up because I couldn’t comprehend how Katherine Heigl, beautiful and intelligent, with a glamorous L.A. job, would consider even going out for breakfast with Rogen after their drunken one-night sand, let alone decide to raise a child with him. As Lou he suggests the struggle of a young man who probably married before he was ready to share his life with a woman and found himself hopelessly out of his depth, trying to negotiate his wife’s fears and her quicksilver changes of mood. Rogen can’t pull off all the scenes Polley throws at him, and when he isn’t comfortable on screen he tends to fall back on his hip-ironic audience-pleasing mode. But here, for the first time, he proves himself as an actor.

Margot admits to Daniel early in the picture, “I don’t like being between things,” but Williams’s peculiar gift is finding precisely the moment when one emotional state blurs into another. She feels her way into the mood of a scene, almost like a blind person figuring out the geography of a new place; you can see it slowly take over her face and her body, and you can see when she tries to resist it. It’s tricky to describe the key moments in a Michelle Williams performance because they’re rarely big, showy scenes, and if another, less completely authentic actress attempted them they might seem silly and insignificant. For instance, she has a tender, affecting speech to Daniel about how, when her baby niece cries for reasons that none of the other adults can figure out, she identifies with the child because sometimes just the way the sun fills a space of sky can make her cry. The unusual kind of emotional territory Williams lays claim to – tentativeness and overlapping feelings – made her the ideal actress to play Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn; it was also a boon in Blue Valentine, where her character was another woman who had outgrown a childish husband (Ryan Gosling). She’s one of the most exciting and innovative American film actresses working right now.

Polley, too, is trying out new approaches. Some sequences in Take This Waltz fall flat, like one where she lingers in the shower on the women who, like Margot, are taking an exercise class at the pool. None of the scenes built around Sarah Silverman as Lou’s alcoholic sister Geraldine is convincing, because unlike the other major actors in the film Silverman appears to have worked everything out beforehand; there’s a theatricality about her performance that feels exactly like the style of her stand-up routines. But most of the movie is miraculously fresh and truly experimental. Polley is, in her modest way, one of her generation’s New Wavers, working with her actors to locate sounds of intimate connection between human beings that no one has heard on the screen before.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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