In 2003, Sarah Polley starred in Isabel Coixet’s wonderful My Life Without Me as a young wife and mother who discovers that she has terminal uterine cancer – and only two months to live. Keeping the news from her loved ones, Polley’s Ann assembles a list of things to do before she dies – things like making tapes for her young daughters to listen to on their birthdays, finding a new wife for her beloved husband, and having a sexual relationship with another man. The driving force behind Ann’s decision to (eventually) embark on a passionate affair with no less than Mark Ruffalo (who can blame her) is Ann’s imminent demise and her desire to fill her last days with rich experiences. It’s one of her best performances as an actress, and it’s perhaps one of the best ways to approach Polley’s second directorial debut.
In Polley’s Take This Waltz, Michelle Williams‘ Margot suffers in a way not wholly different than how Ann suffered in My Life. But Margot’s particular death sentence is of the Hamlet variety – she’s not sick and she’s not obviously falling apart, but Margot is decomposing of her own volition, dying since the day she was born, and both unable and unwilling to notice her blooming unhappiness. In short terms, Margot is bored and doesn’t realize it.
A struggling writer, Margot lives a quiet life with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) in a knickknack-crammed house in Toronto’s charming Little Portugal section. The pair of them both work from home – Margot writes boring travel brochures upstairs, Lou perfects recipes for his cookbook downstairs (Lou’s cookbook is about chicken – that’s the sort of dude Lou is) – and that closeness, combined with a house that’s full to bursting with mementos and ephemera, an overripe color palette, and a blazing hot Toronto summer that all the fans in the world can’t seem to combat, make one thing plain – Margot and Lou are suffocating.
A weekend trip to a Canadian tourist trap finally frees Margot from the oppression of her loving home, and while she’s watching historical reenactments to later write about for another boring brochure, a handsome stranger cracks enough jokes to rub her the wrong way and almost get her trapped in the stocks (it’s that kind of tourist attraction). But this somewhat strange meet cute with Daniel (Luke Kirby) unwinds in the most unexpected of ways – on the flight back, Margot and Daniel share a row, and then they share a cab, and then they realize they share a street.
Margot’s fate is sealed early – standing on her own porch, she gazes after Daniel as he enters his own apartment across the street. She knows it. We know it. And the pain and the beauty of the dazzling Take This Waltz revolves around watching the (seemingly) inevitable happen. It’s a slow burn, and it’s a frequently upsetting experience – Rogen’s Lou is so lovely and so trusting, Margot is so lost, Daniel is so desirable (and, soon enough, he’s pretty damn desirous, too) – and all three of them seem to be within mere minutes of crashing and crumbling spectacularly. Which is why it’s all so strange that Take This Waltz is actually pleasing to watch – while Margot’s actions might seem both severe and irreparable, the emotions that drive them are wholly understandable and recognizable, and watching them play out is fascinating and consuming. Take This Waltz is an uncompromisingly human film – especially when it delves into some of the deepest and most selfish of human desires – and its swirl of emotion is hard to turn away from.
Williams’ success in Take This Waltz is hard-won; after all, it’s not often that audiences sympathize with a cinematic adulteress, particularly when there doesn’t appear to be anything cruel or deficient about their spouse. While it’s not easy to walk away from the film without feeling at least a touch of disdain for Margot, what Polley and Williams create together is a character who often emerges as, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable. Margot is unhappy with herself and her life, and her unwillingness to address that in a mature way and to instead turn to pleasure as her primary outlet is suffocatingly sad – but there’s an edge of familiarity to it. Margot is not special, her situation is not unique, but Williams’ solid work in the role elevates her to something that is special and unique. Take This Waltz is not a film about Lou or Daniel, it’s very much a film about Margot – and the fact that the men in her life prove to be so interchangeable is yet another reason why it’s fascinating to watch her flounder, even as we ache (for her, for Daniel, for Lou, for human fallibility).
“Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz it’s been dying for years”
The Upside: Michelle Williams turns in another solid, well-crafted performance; impeccable set design; well-paced and never over-the-top despite highly emotional subject matter.
The Downside: Kirby’s Daniel remains at a distance to both Margot and the audience; some viewers will be turned off by the film simply for its subject matter.
On the Side: Named after the Leonard Cohen song of the same name, Take This Waltz is not nearly as obtuse as Cohen’s rich lyrics, but they are still quite clearly about the same thing – death and, more specifically, the death of love. Not sad enough yet? Read the full lyrics for Cohen’s song HERE.