Take This Waltz, writer/director Sarah Polley’s latest feature, is lovely to look at, with bright, stimulating visuals and convincing dialogue performed beautifully by the cast. It is also terrifically exasperating. Much of this is due to the central character, Margot, portrayed by Michelle Williams.
Granted, I haven’t seen Michelle Williams in anything but Brokeback Mountain, so it’s difficult for me to tell if she’s incredibly gifted at playing an extremely annoying person or if that’s her acting style, but I will give her the benefit of the doubt. However, it also makes it difficult to decide whether to root for her.
28-year-old Margot meets single Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a business trip and there is instant chemistry, or at least we can understand why she’s attracted to him. He’s handsome, sharp, and witty. Then we discover that not only is Margot married, but also that Daniel lives across the street. As she astutely observes right after than discovery: “Oh shit.” Things get more complicated from there, with Margot and Daniel dancing around each other but never consummating anything physically, on ongoing situation skillfully rendered in the pool scene where the two swim around each other like fighting fish.
Margot is supposed to be happily married to Lou (played with immense conviction by Seth Rogen), but is she really? We only witness their relationship after she meets Daniel so it is never clarified for us. Although Margot and Lou’s interactions feel like those of married couples—where silly shorthand replaces the stilted, artificial dialogue seen in other movies—they’re also rife with assumptions and abysmal communication.
Frankly, it’s difficult to connect with Margot as a character. She comes across as terribly immature. For starters, there’s the part where, ostensibly flirting, she calls Daniel “gay” and a “gaylord,” a reference that seems hopelessly dated, juvenile, and offensive. Even though Daniel calls her out on it, Margot’s affected childlike voice and boisterous physical behavior when she interacts with Lou is consistent with this infantilization. (Honestly, what grown woman finagles a wheelchair ride to an airport terminal because she gets anxious about “being in between things”?)
Additionally, Margot relies on Lou to read her mind and grows irritated and emotional when he doesn’t. When she opens up to Daniel, he seems to expose her as someone who thinks she’s got more depth than she actually does. (So why does he like her so much again?) Even in the verbal seduction scene over martinis, she forces Daniel to perform all the wordplay.
One feels that if Margot were just better at communicating her complaints and desires to Lou, Daniel wouldn’t tempt her in the first place. Knowing she’s married but pursuing her anyway doesn’t make Daniel seem all that upstanding, either, particularly after he meets Lou and notes that he’s a nice guy. Lou is funny and kind; he’s not the clichéd abusive or cold husband that would immediately shift our empathies to Margot. Yet, he is not the best at expressing himself, either; he cuts off a conversation with Margot about dogs and babies before we can decide whether this is an ongoing sore subject or was never previously discussed.
On the other hand, Polley has a remarkable skill for communicating ideas without dialogue. At one point, Margot tells Daniel, “I’m in love with you.” Shortly afterward, she wakes Lou up, crying and then we see the couple looking distraught and silent on the bed. We presume she’s told him something, but we don’t know specifically what. It might be ambiguous but it isn’t redundant exposition. Similarly, the carnival ride with Margot and Daniel is an exhilarating, romantic scene that is abruptly cut short when the ride ends, and their discomfort and sadness at facing the reality of their situation is palpable.
Polley also has a deft touch with location shooting in Toronto and a gift for utilizing natural light and color. Yet, the visual style of Take This Waltz changes dramatically when Margot breaks up with Lou. We see a series of jump cuts of him reacting to whatever she’s told him. Then there is an odd, Forrest Gump-like montage of her running through the city and an even odder circle tracking shot montage of graphic sex between Margot and Daniel, Margot and Daniel and a half naked woman, Margot and Daniel and another man . . . Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not trying to sound prudish at all. It’s just that the juxtaposition in tone is startling and completely at odds with the rest of the film.
Which is perhaps the point Polley’s trying to make? Margot’s life with Lou was genial and loving, yet straightforward and boring, while her life with Daniel is haphazard and exciting (at least until they are shown watching TV and using the bathroom in scenes nearly identical to those we already saw with her and Lou). Still, this stylistic conceit transforms Margot from someone who fell out of love with Lou and into love with Daniel to someone who just wanted more exciting sexual experiences and our sympathy for her “plight” is lessened considerably.
Ironically, the character who seems to represent the conscience of Take This Waltz (and perhaps the audience) is Lou’s sister Geraldine, a recovering alcoholic. She gives Margot more than one knowing look, but never confronts her. In one of the last scenes of the film, she finally does, voicing what we’ve all probably been thinking: “I think you really fucked up, Margot.”
By making the penultimate scene almost identical to the opening scene, where Margot looks absolutely miserable and alone (this time with different music, and a blurry image of what seems to be Daniel replacing a blurry image of what earlier looked like Lou) it doesn’t seem like Margot has actually found happiness, peace, or herself. The last scene, her solo carnival ride, may even indicate that she broke up with Daniel as well and is thus, still searching.
Take This Waltz is not a terrible movie, or even a bad one. In fact, it’s a very good movie, but one filled with deeply frustrating characters.
Take This Waltz was released on DVD on October 23 by Magnolia Home Entertainment. The disc includes a good “Making Of” documentary, which honestly made me feel a lot better about my analysis of the characters and their motivations. There is also a short featurette for AXS TV and the original film trailer.