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TIFF '11 Review: Sarah Polley's 'Take This Waltz' Has Insights And Edges Sharp Enough To Stab

by James Rocchi
September 12, 2011 3:15 AM
14 Comments
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In Sarah Polley's Toronto-set drama "Take this Waltz," Margo (Michelle Williams) stumbles across Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a business trip, only to find he lives across the street; despite being married to Lou (Seth Rogen), Margo can't stop thinking of Daniel. Or maybe it's because she's married to Lou that she can't stop thinking of Daniel … Following up "Away from Her," Polley's second film is sharply dividing critics and audience in Toronto: Many find it simultaneously exhilarating and depressing; others find it ugly and hateful; a third faction seems to be kicking against the film not for how it says what it says, but, instead, for what it says in the first place.

Like a modernist version of a late '60s or early '70s relationship film -- "An Unmarried Woman," or "Carnal Knowledge" or "Faces," for example, "Take this Waltz" first takes nothing for granted, and then takes everything on. Is monogamy viable? Why do we give up the old for the new? Or why do we not when we should? Can we ever be completely happy? Is sex love?


If Polley's second directorial effort were just talking, it would still be superb; a scene where Kirby explains, at her prompting, exactly what he'd do to (and with, and for) Williams while they sit over martinis in a public restaurant is the most achingly sexual and intimate scene at the movies in 2011, with not a single touch. (The way Williams says the word "No" alone late in that scene -- first as a question, then as an answer -- is achingly raw.) But Polley has also become, early in her career, a visualist and sensualist of the highest order.

There are one or two mis-steps here, to be sure -- a scene with a queeny, mincing aquarobics instructor and its denouement seem like they're on loan from an Adam Sandler film; Sarah Silverman, as Rogen's recovering alcoholic sister, is more a screen presence than an actor. And within the first 10 minutes, Williams has a speech about travel anxiety ("I'm ... afraid of connections. In airports.") that might as well have a light bulb-emblazoned sign reading "METAPHOR!" zoomed in on guywires. Those complaints, though, are only because the rest of this film is so good, and so strong, that they seem like cracks in a otherwise flawless creation. I cannot praise Williams and Rogen and the previously-unknown Kirby enough; I cannot convey to you the depths of Polley's understanding (Polley knows that love is a conspiracy, and that there is no betrayal more traitorous than conspiring against your co-conspirator); I cannot convey the sense of heat and beauty in how Polley films Toronto's streets and nights.

And yet, "Take this Waltz" is also, for lack of a better words, infuriating and troubling -- not because of what it gets 'wrong,' but because the things it gets right are buried under your skin like a splinter you can't dislodge, tearing at the nerves and flesh. Critic Carina Chocano recently wrote a New York Times Magazine piece on how what the cinema needs, perhaps, are fewer "strong" female characters and more real female characters; this film serves as a demonstration of that idea. William's Margo is deeply flawed, perhaps irredeemably broken, capable of monstrous selfishness in the search for happiness -- and human, and as worthy of happiness as anyone. As we are. And Polley isn't afraid of sex, nor is she banal enough to think it cures all ills, or that it can't be used as a weapon. (Polley gets the sad fact only people who've been in ugly and protracted breakups know: Nothing could ever be more intimate than denying someone intimacy.)

Before you think this all sounds dour and sour, though, also know that there are moments of laughter and joy here. Rogen subsumes his good humor into a performance -- Lou, a cookbook writer, knows full well what his chicken-centered work-in-progress is doing to his life and diet -- and there's also a note of play here (even as it feeds into Polley's theme of permanent adolescence and immaturity extending into our adult relationships); when Williams and Kirby taunt each other as 'gaylords' it's horrible, real, immature and funny. And the films' use of music -- from a raucous party-scene Feist cover of Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time," to a montage set to the Cohen song the film takes its title from depicting a relationship in fast-forward, hot sex and warm affection cooling to calm domesticity and freezing into half-aware snuggling while TV-watching -- is excellent, with the exception of a pop-song from the past, used in two scenes, too good and brilliant and thematically appropriate and trashily perfect to name. Suffice it to say that Polley can find the pathos behind an '80s one-hit wonder and turn that song's dimwit chorus into an elegy on how time's arrow moves only in one direction.

Polley has an eye for detail and an ear for truth; at a press event for the film, she noted how she wanted to make her film go past where a conventional movie like this would end, showing what comes after, and that follow-through is what turns the film from a strong jab into a knockout punch. It may seem ridiculous to suggest that Polley, after only "Away from Her" and "Take this Waltz," is one of Canada's and film's most exciting and important new directors; I'd suggest that contention only seems ridiculous if you haven't yet seen "Take this Waltz." [A]

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14 Comments

  • Drew | May 27, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    Just terrible. At best, the scenes grasp for some depth or cleverness completely absent given the caricatures of the characters. At worst, the dialogue seems like it was written by a seventh grader whose assignment was to write a sequel to Garden State. Trite, shallow, predictable, and contrived. The scenes between Rogen and Williams are cringe-worthy.

  • Manic Pixie | September 16, 2011 9:15 AMReply

    based on the ridiculous way the characters look in every still of this movie, it is clearly hipster garbage. If you want to make a realistic movie, then start by not making the main character look like a classic "manic pixie dreamgirl."

    Seriously, just look at Michelle Williams in these photos. What the hell. I'm her dressed like a 5 year old, and a guy in capri pants. I already do not buy these characters as anything resembling real people.

  • Fred | September 14, 2011 8:03 AMReply

    The praisers of this film are convincing me far more than the detractors.

    An aside re: "Sharkman, whoa, meds, calm down."
    Was this whole episode censored because of sharkman's insulting fu to Cory's rebuttal opinion or because it contained the word hipster? I ask because I posted sometime ago a comment regarding Freaky Deaky containing that word to find it gone as well. If hipster is for some reason a banned word on here (like they say you can't use the word Netflix in a Netflix review...go figure), please advise...or I guess I'll just see if this gets deleted.

  • Evan | September 13, 2011 12:28 PMReply

    Yes, when this film is on point, it's really good. But the missteps are way too big to ignore. Also, the timing in the dialogue between Margo (Williams) and Daniel (Kirby) is off at times. There is no way this film is an 'A.' 'C' at the very very best. If they can somehow recut it without the 5-6 terrible scenes (in addition to the ones the reviewer mentioned, the night time pool sequence was crazy bad and the whole twirly arty loft montage was ridiculous), the grade could go up considerably.

  • jingmei | September 13, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    I like this film, though haven't watched it.

  • Pierre | September 12, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    Surprising considering Away From Her was such a whitewashed bore.

  • The Playlist | September 12, 2011 9:28 AMReply

    Sharkman, whoa, meds, calm down. I'm hoping Cory's take is wrong, because i really like Sarah Polley and hope this review is on the money, but geez, take a pill.

  • scribe | September 12, 2011 9:15 AMReply

    great review- reminiscent of Ebert in his prime. Bravo sir. Kevin- hold onto this one.

  • Cory Everett | September 12, 2011 8:38 AMReply

    I mostly hated this film. Williams character was a manic pixie mess and her marriage was a completely unrealistic collection of tics that didn't resemble anything like a real human relationship. The sex montage at the end was also really, really bad.

  • sp | September 12, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    Michele Williams needs to stop portraying the same morose characters. This is beyond annoying. She has been doing this since Dawson Creek.

  • canmark | September 12, 2011 8:10 AMReply

    I've been reading a number of reviews and comments on the 'net and it's interesting that the film has evoked very mixed (and strong) feelings.

    I quite liked it (POSSIBLE SPOILER: so long as I can believe that the latter part of the film was imagined and not real), and thought Polley took what could be a simple rom-com premise (woman must choose between safe husband or exciting neighbor) and turned it into a complex, contemporary drama.

    While some of the metaphors were blatantly obvious (Margot's fear of "missed connections"), others were well illustrated (the amusement park ride, the shower scene with the older ladies).

    Toronto never looked more beautiful, and the soundtrack was quite suitable (loved the use of Video Killed the Radio Star). Michelle Williams was wonderful, Luke Kirby charming, but I found Seth Rogan slightly miscast (perhaps a less-well known actor would have been better).

  • louis | September 12, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    I don't think this film worked at all. It was poorly paced, pretentious, and worst of all I just didn't believe in these characters. If you compare this film to "Blue Valentine" you'll get a sense of why this is ultimately just a mediocre foray into the relationship genre and not the kind of film that resonates on a deeper level.

  • Jason | September 12, 2011 4:07 AMReply

    I was at the Gala with 2 other people who did not love the film. I however, adored it. This review has it bang on. There are moments when you might not love Margot or understand her but Polley never compromises. It isn't an easy film but 2 days later, its still resonated with me.

  • Benjamin | September 12, 2011 3:47 AMReply

    What an exceptional review.

    I read the script about a year ago and absolutely fell in love with Margo. Not because she was loveable, no, but because she was broken and you have the irrepressible need to fix her, to scream, "no!" at every second, but at the same time you feel as if all that you see is none of your business.

    The utter sexuality that oozes out of those early scenes is so much more tense than any other turn the story could've taken. The set-up is rather broad, but the tension that builds is well worth the silly coincidences in the script.

    I really like that the music is such a stand-out player in the film, as Polley maps out all the music she plans to use in the screenplay, and it all fits in in quite unsubtle, but rather beautiful ways, especially the title track. That montage is something I cannot wait to behold.

    Something I am sad to see though is that Sarah Silverman's character is small in the screenplay, but scene stealing a la a role like, say, Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone. I was really betting on her grabbing an Independent Spirit Award nod this year. There's a particular monologue at the end that really enforces the theme much better than the connections line you stated that I just read over and over again.

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