Take This Waltz (2011)
Take This Waltz (USA) Directed by Sarah Polley Written by Sarah Polley Starring Michelle Williams; Seth Rogan; Luke Kirby; Sarah Silverman
Thirty three year old Canadian Sarah Polley’s second film sees her teaming with the luminous Michelle Williams in a drama about a young woman feeling unsatisfied in her five year old marriage.
Take this Waltz will draw comparisons to Derek Cianfrance’s memorable Blue Valentine (2010), mostly because Williams played a similarly unhappy married in that film, which also explored the mysteries of wedded bliss and not so blissful. Waltz is a different animal - lighter, teetering on the edge of overly precious, cliched indie quirk; less trenchant and heart-wrenching; the similar questions it poses riddled with fewer emotional land mines. The two films, though, both examine the underlying, often unspoken feelings between two people in an intimate relationship, and the ways individual realities meld or fracture within any coupling.
Where Polley’s ridiculously mature, virtually seamless dramatic first film, Away From Her (2006), felt entirely new and original, this time out we get the feeling we’ve been here before and that Polley is riffing on a kind of quasi-established genre - an anti-romantic comedy. There’s the meeting cute; the whimsically odd quotient; the quippy, offbeat retorts; the casting of several comedians. One only wonders how much of the young director’s intent was to mirror films of the type in a straightforward way, and how much she wished to subvert the genre by operating within it? In any event, unlike Away from Her, Take This Waltz feels more like a first film a younger filmmaker (albeit a talented one) would make, and there is the inherent mixed bag that most often goes along with that.
Williams plays twenty eight year old Margot, ensconced in a five year marriage to cookbook writer Lew (Seth Rogan). Their relationship feels lived in - full of inside jokes and apt silences, though the heart of what is wrong with them is never completely defined. This inability to communicate, to get at the crux of the space that exists between these two, however, is also the very essence of what makes the film pleasingly enigmatic, even if there are moments when some strain is felt as the they dance around their issues. Of the two Lew seems the more satisfied, immersed in his work at home, content with the silly games they play, but something between them is decidedly off, and it is clear that Margot does not feel connected or engaged enough, sexually, intellectually, or emotionally.
While a film like Blue Valentine was able to match Williams with a partner (Ryan Gosling) equal to the challenging task at hand, Seth Rogan is merely there to serve a type. Though thankfully he steps away from his usual on screen persona (this is surely his best dramatic performance), his lack of chops gets shown up when he is finally asked to do more. In what is perhaps the most ill advised scene in the film (a montage toward the end is close), Polley shows various cuts of Lew’s reactions to a serious discussion with his wife. The sequence is overly long and rather than hide Rogan’s inability to access true emotion, the editing choices shine a light on his obvious weaknesses.
Williams, on the other hand, once again proves she is the best young actress in the universe. It always seems trite, somehow, to call an actor brave, but Williams continues to expose herself, reaching depths that very few in her profession are willing and/or able to go to. Her face has the ability to deliver multi-layered emotion and thought with the kind of power only the gifted few possess. Her openness on screen is highlighted by an ability to convey a (an innate?) quality of innocence that only seems to be enhanced with inarticulateness - an elixir that somehow adds up to a powerful capability to demonstrate emotional distress and inner conflict without having to resort to explanation via extensive dialogue. A strong actor herself, director Polley is obviously aware of the immense talent before her and utilizes her lead actress to great effect throughout.
This is only Polley’s second film and she can be forgiven if her quasi experimentation with genre is not always perfect. Though the story is a simple one, Take This Waltz attempts the rather Herculean task of playing in the pool of stylized romantic comedy, while wanting to display true, realistic emotion and action. Sarah Silverman, for instance, is effective as Lew’s alcoholic sister, particularly in a nude shower scene where she is as raw and truthful as she has ever been on screen, though the family sequences, and her storyline, do remind us a bit of secondhand Rachel is Getting Married.
Polley once again employs cinematographer Luc Montepelier, and the visuals are carefully rendered. Color splashed set and costume design are used throughout, and they give the film a kind of stylized vibrancy that helps fight the potential torpor of a dialogue dependent film that takes place mostly in simple (and a limited amount of) locations. Handheld camerawork, clever utilization of the sun for exteriors, and knowingly employed primary colored hues in the lighting design further enhance the overall tone.