When Sarah Polley offered her first feature – Away From Her – it seemed as if she was an old soul in a young body, having experienced a lifetime before slipping back into youth and sharing what she learned. The film possessed a certain knowing that thrust it well beyond typical dramatic entertainment. It wasn’t merely the source material, Alice Munro’s short story, but how Polley elongated it into a feature film. But if her second feature – Take This Waltz – is any indication, her knowing doesn't come from a time machine or preternatural sense; it comes from a clear understanding about the natural progression of life, a willingness to tackle the grey areas cinema often strives to avoid, especially when it comes to the turmoil of romance.
Take This Waltz is the younger, more vibrant sibling to Away From Her. With a goregeously lively, over-saturated hue that starkly contrasts the former film's wintry calm, it follows the exploits of Margot (Michelle Williams), a confused young woman who is emotionally paralyzed by a fear of the unknown and the pressures of living in limbo. She's married to the sweet and loving Lou (Seth Rogen), but finds herself drawn to her neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby). It’s the typical, well-traversed romantic triangle where a woman is torn between the more familial comfort of the nice-guy and the teasing temptation of a dark, artsy type.
Thankfully, Polley’s treatment of the story is anything but typical.
Margot deeply loves Lou, but feels alienated. Their love is one of extreme comfort, practically sibling level affection. They barely communicate, save for baby talk and ironic exclamations of love. It's no surprise that she develops feelings for Daniel, a straightforward man who offers conversation, engagement, and sexual magnetism. With Lou, she receives love with a certain denial-fueled indifference. He obviously adores his wife, but he’s unable to properly connect with her. With Daniel, there’s a palpable fascination. This man thrives to connect with her physically and creatively – to really study her as a person, friend, and lover. Margot, therefore, strives to reconcile her loving fidelity with her untamed passion, walking a very thin line between thought, word, and action.
And so the waltz begins. Margot and Daniel waltz in temptation without touching. When they get too close, they pull away. They do want to connect, but it’s more about how smoothly they interact in this dance of flirtation. Polley, meanwhile, dances with ideas; she’s not content to make grand, rigid statements and sentiments, but rather to step forward and then swing back, creating a cinematic space for the grey area in life. There are no neat, straight lines between what is good and what is bad, who is knowledgeable and who is ill-informed. Every player has their strengths and weaknesses, and no one basks in an untouchable moral high-ground. Actions, and even advice, must be weighed against the person's own point of view and personal choices; there is no character who gets off scot-free, or knows best. Like life, everyone is right, yet wrong at the same time.
By offering up no moral certainty, no distinct message or condemnation, Polley is free to dance with all of life’s little quirks, even comedy. Take This Waltz uses humor and irony as its fuel, plucking out real-life laughs from both its seasoned comedic talent (Rogen and Sarah Silverman, who plays Geraldine, his sister and Margot’s friend) and its dramatic backbone (Williams). In fact, the humor from Rogen and Silverman are ironically subdued while Williams gets the one tear-gushing moment of real-life, slapstick ridiculousness. It’s the sort of awkward humor that entertains us while also saying so very much about Margot herself.
If Take This Waltz is about anything, it’s treating all the complexities of a subject, whether plot or character. The film isn’t all serious or silly. There are moments of painful tears and moments of all-out glee. The film is not all melodramatic or all straightforward. Margot isn’t a homewrecker tantalized by forbidden love and having steamy rendezvous between the sheets. Wonderfully, she’s not characterized by sex and sexuality, plucking at the strings of the audience’s libido. Instead, these usually over-sexualized aspects of life are normalized and contextualized. Polley shoots Margot in a way that loves her as a person, rather than a body waiting to be consumed. In one scene, she bathes after swimming with her two friends and it’s not a moment of titillation, but simply a moment of down-time and chatter while they clean themselves. A full-frontal view isn’t scandalous and erotic. It’s simply natural.
In a discussion with Margot, Geraldine challenges the notion that “everything can work out if you make the right move.” There is no right move in Take This Waltz. Lou can’t offer her all that she wants, and her metaphorical dance with Daniel is removed from real life; it doesn’t live in the real, everyday world. Margot must decide what she requires to be happy, and whether she wants to be coupled or alone. There’s no demon or bad guy – just people dealing with the complexities of life in different ways, and it's great to behold.