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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

TIFF ’11 Review: Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz completely slayed me.

With her 2006 feature film debut, Away from Her, Sarah Polley examined the intricacies of a long-term relationship through a couple married for many decades, who were faced with one of them dealing with early-onset Alzheimer’s. In that film, she explored marriage, infidelity, and commitment with a deeply innate understanding of the complexity of relationships that was remarkable for a director who was, at that time, only 27.

Five years later with Take This Waltz, she explores a similar theme through a different lens, with a story that revolves around what happens to the marriage of a late-20s couple, Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen), when Margot makes a connection with Daniel (Luke Kirby), a handsome, charming neighbor who gives Margot the attention she craves from her well-intentioned but distracted husband.

Among the many things Polley nails with both her script and direction is the way in which we tend to grow complacent in long-term relationships. That’s just the way it goes, right? At the beginning, when things are budding and new and fresh, there’s a palpable excitement to this connection you’re making with another person, when the sexual chemistry is so intense it feels like it colors the world. You feel tingly and giddy and everything suddenly seems to be made brighter, more vivid, by the feelings flooding through you that you can’t quite explain or get a handle on.

And you think to yourself, wow, I’ve finally found this person who makes me feel this way, and it seems, in those early days, that this will never go away — because you mistakenly think that the feeling is about the person, rather than just the dynamic of being in that particular stage of a relationship. You don’t always get, when you’re in it, that beginnings and middles and endings are really just an inevitable part of the cycle.

And of course, as grown-ups, we think we are supposed to realize this. We’re supposed to know, by the time we’re in our 20s or 30s or 40s, that the blush of first love, the sizzle of sexual attraction, inevitably fades into something different, more comfortable and, hopefully, more deeply connected than just having great sex with someone new. We’re supposed to get that long-term relationships are about sticking it out through the valleys as well as the peaks, and that relationships mellow and evolve, change and shift, through the course of two people growing and changing themselves.

We’re supposed to get that, yes. But we don’t, always, do we? If we did, the divorce rate would be a hell of a lot lower than it is.

People have feelings that are irrational, that run counter to what our conscience and social mores tell us we should have, and we can’t always explain to ourselves why we feel the way we feel. We can choose, certainly, to go down this path or that one, but morality in relationships is simply not always as black and white as we’d like to wish it was.

The choices we make have consequences, and, to paraphrase a bit of dialog from the film, sometimes we make choices that stick, and they just can’t be undone or fixed. And then you realize that every relationship will inevitably cycle into the same pattern of comfortable familiarity and routine, and you start to realize, perhaps, that it’s not the person you’re with — it’s you. Or more accurately, that it’s not even you, but that it’s just the way things are, that this is what it means to be in a long-term relationship with another person. You muddle through, and you learn, and you figure out that maybe life just is the way it is, and the complexities of love and emotion and way we connect in relationships are a part of that too, and that no matter how tightly you try to grasp onto that passion and energy of the beginning of a relationship, it’s as impossible as trying to hold on forever to a handful of sand.

Polley is one of the few directors working today who seems to not just deeply understand the complexity of the edges of relationships, but to be able to convey it on screen in ways that are strikingly visual and poetic, full of imagery and beauty, joy and sadness, all at once. For instance, the opening scene bookends near the end of the film in a slightly different way that evokes beginnings and endings with poetic visual stanzas that say, simply: Look, there are beginnings and there are endings, and at the core they are both the same thing.

She makes choices with the artistic design of her films that reflect a mature and thoughtful sensibility and innate understanding of how to convey what’s inside a person by showing us how they feel through the imagery of the things around them. Consider the achingly cool color palette of Away from Her, which was about the long, cold, death of Julie Christie’s Fiona as she succumbed to a disease that robbed her of all the memories that made her who she was, and how it took away from her husband the lifetime connection of hopes and dreams and betrayal and forgiveness the two had shared.

And now consider the careful choices around use of color and production design, framing and focus, that Polley uses in Take This Waltz to evoke a completely different emotional tonality, reflecting the way everything seems more vibrant and glowing and exciting when awash in the light of a new emotional connection with another person. Consider also the astuteness with which Polley completely nails the little things about relationships: How even in a marriage, there’s still a certain emotional risk, a fear of rejection, around the initiation of sex; how even when you’re in a committed relationship, you’re not immune to connecting emotionally with someone else; how comfortable familiarity can start to rub in irritating ways, even as you try desperately to cling to all that you know you’ve shared with this person.

There’s a side story in the film about Margot’s sister-in-law, Geri (Sarah Silverman), an alcoholic mother trying desperately to stay on the wagon for the sake of her husband and daughter, that augments the main storyline nicely and really, could have been a story in its own right. It’s reflective of Polley’s talent that she creates this wrenching, real sidecar to the main piece that’s so honestly realized it makes you want to see more, too, of the relationship between Geri and her husband and her struggle to maintain a straight course. It’s reflective also of the commitment Silverman brought to a relatively small part that Geri is such a compelling and heart-breaking character.

But if honest, true, perceptive writing and assured directing is the steady heartbeat that drives Take This Waltz, its the three actors at the center of the story who are the blood the heart pumps. Both Rogen and Williams are at the top of their game here, and for all that I thought Williams was brilliant and wrenching in Blue Valentine, she’s equally terrific, in a different way that’s every bit as genuine, in this film.

What makes Williams, like most great actors, so compelling to watch is her ability to be completely transparent, to allow the emotion and the story and the essence of who Margot is to completely take her over in every scene. It’s a quality that only the best performers have, and it’s hard to precisely define, but immediately recognizable when you see it. Whatever “it” is, Williams has it. As for Rogen, this, for me, is the best he’s ever been. I wish he’d stay away from comedy and just stick with working with directors like Polley who can get this kind of compelling, honest performance out of him, because he just broke my heart in this film. Kirby’s a new one for ,so it’s hard to gauge how much of his performance here is reacting to Williams’ powerful presence and how much is his own innate talent, but the believeable chemistry between them worked very well.

Bottom line for me is quite simply this: Polley is one of the most interesting, powerful, fiercely independent directors working today. She’s an artist and a poet who paints the canvas of a movie screen with fascinating, textured stories, stories that connect and evoke emotion because they are so goddamned spot-on and unflinchingly, boldly honest. She’s made a powerful one-two punch of a statement for the writer-director she is and intends to be with Away from Her and Take This Waltz. What will she be a decade from now? I can’t wait to watch.

5 Responses to “TIFF ’11 Review: Take This Waltz”

  1. David says:

    I think Kim is way off on this one. I thought this movie was a pretentious mess. It was boring, the characters were flat as could be, and it looked bad. But the worst part is I didn’t believe in any of them. A rickshaw driver with an apartment like that? His whole life felt “quirky love interest”. Has the director ever met a real rickshaw driver? It was so contrived and false.
    Yes Michelle Williams was good, but she’s always good, and this movie was nowhere near as interesting and complex and moving as Blue Valentine.
    I admire Sarah Polley as an actress but as a director I think she has a lot to learn. This was a 10 million dollar film that could have been made for 2. If any one else in the world made this it would be considered a flop.

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    David, I don’t think it’s possible for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to be “way off” on how I react to a film as if there’s some kind of black and white objectivity as to whether a film is “good” or “bad.” There is no such thing, there’s only how I respond to a particular film, and how you respond, and so on. How a film moves any given person is purely subjective.

    As I said, I think with any film, a good deal of what you gets out of it has to do with the perspective you bring to it. For me, at the place I’m at in my life and with the experiences I’ve had over the past couple years in particular around infidelity, the end of one long-term relationship, and the beginning of a new one, this is how the film spoke to me. You may have a completely different set of life experiences that color your view of it. As it should be.

    I’m much more interested in what Polley has to say about relationships, about the beginnings and the endings. She’s explored those aspects of relationships in both her films, and seems more interested in the edges than what’s in between.

    As for whether a rickshaw driver would live like that, for me, that was just irrelevant. For all we know he’s a trust fund kid or his folks died and left him an inheritance and he’s bumming around a bit and figuring out if he wants to be an artist. Who cares? For me, it didn’t matter that Daniel was a rickshaw driver, or that Lou was working on writing a cookbook, or that Margot aspired to be a writer, because this film wasn’t about what these people do for a living, but about Margot’s sense of always being in between, always looking for something to feel complete, when in fact we are never complete and always searching for what’s next.

    As for Polley, I find her filmmaking style to be smart and stylish and poetic; you’re certainly free to find it otherwise. If everyone agreed on what moves them in any given piece of art, the world would be a very dull place. I would be interested, though, in hearing what movies here at TIFF you have enjoyed.

  3. david says:

    Hi Kim,

    I’m sorry to disagree with you but I do think it’s possible for people’s critical taste to be “off”, and in this case I think you were infected by festival fever — the way certain films are celebrated during a festival but in the cold light of day appear less interesting. And this movie was one of those. Very hyped in the context of the festival but just not very good. Without meaning to sound harsh, let’s just agree that yes, people have different taste, but that does not mean someone’s critical judgement doesn’t occasionally misfire.
    As for the rickshaw driver thing, I think it’s indicative of the overall fakery of the film. The characters felt so two dimensional and unreal to me — the kind of people who have sprung straight out of screenwriter-ville. This might not matter in a high concept pic, but in a movie attempting to dissect modern relationships it’s the death knell. As many people have pointed out, just compare this to “Blue Valentine”. That film was edgy, fascinating, and full of moving performances that had the stench of bitter reality. Whereas in this movie the characters felt like inventions from the mind of someone who didn’t think these things through, doesn’t actually know real people well, and has little to new to say (in this context). And besides this giant flaw, I thought the movie looked bad and was awkwardly constructed. in short, a bad film.
    As for TIFF favorites, ask me at the week’s end. But there have been so many wonderful films. I hate that I sound so negative here but I think it’s a shame when a film like this steals attention from some of the truly great pieces of cinema floating around. A fantastic year overall.

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    David, all due respect, but I don’t think you know me well enough to assert that because I liked this film and you didn’t that I must therefore have been infected by “festival fever.”

    You didn’t like the film, I did. Let’s just leave it at that and agree to disagree. We can certainly agree that this was a fantastic fest over all … I saw many films that I liked this year, and only one that I disliked enough to merit a walkout.

  5. Eileen says:

    David you suck, this movie was amazing!

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