Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her was hugely acclaimed for its emotional truth and eloquence, on occasion inspiring something close to awe that such a young writer-director could have engaged so fully with the challenges of old age. The film was very precisely investigated and crafted, but at times I found it a little too pristine; in particular perhaps, the ending – turning on what would have to be an incredibly wrenching, turbulent compromise overemphasized structural tidiness, irony and perseverance. But I wrote at the time that it was difficult to blame a director as young and enterprising as Polley for retaining a certain measure of idealism in this.
Precision and expansiveness
Polley’s second film Take this Waltz might have been designed to assert her range – where the first title emphasized the cruel distancing of age, the second asserts youthful connection, at least for as long as the music keeps playing. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a writer living in downtown Toronto with her husband Lou (Seth Rogan), who’s developing a book of chicken recipes. On a flight home from Nova Scotia, she connects with Daniel, the guy in the next seat (Luke Kirby); it turns out he lives on the same street, and they begin to meet and flirt and toy with the possibility of something.
Even from that brief synopsis, it’s obvious Polley is working within broadly familiar – one might as well say clichéd – structures and set-ups here. Numerous reviewers have commented on the apparent gap between the characters’ seemingly low incomes and their spacious (though not ostentatious) living circumstances. Of course, maybe this can all be explained by information that’s not in the movie (inheritances or whatever), but it seems a bit odd perhaps that the famously radical, committed Polley aligns herself with those pampered artists whose flimsy devices depend on denying the realities of labour and compromise. But then Toronto viewers also know that Margot’s home, precisely identified as being near Queen and Dufferin, is nowhere near the Beach, presented here as an easy walk away. The point seems to be to intertwine geographic precision and spiritual expansiveness, and thereby to externalize the confused but glorious contours of Margot’s inner life.
Polley devotes much of the movie to observing Margot, alone and with others, and Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail saw it as a problem that the character “seems not 28, but 18, or younger,” citing for example how she “talks about how a sunbeam on a sidewalk can make her cry; she arranges trysts with Daniel, but then changes her mind.” But I’m sure we all know women (and men) not 28, but 38, or older, who are capable on a daily basis of much more youthful (or unformed, whatever) behaviour than that. Actually, the interplay of sexual desire with the forces that compel her to move toward Daniel but then to “change her mind” – a sense of responsibility to her husband, fear of the consequences and so on – seems to me to have no inherent time limit on it. Presumably this is part of the point of the film’s most cited scene, observing Margot and a varied group of women naked in the shower.
From my own perspective, I’d agree some aspects of the character seem rather grotesque, like her faking (or actually experiencing, I’m not sure which) a form of disability when she has to make airport connections. But on the other hand for example, when she talks to her husband about the courage required to try to seduce him – something he can’t relate to at all – it struck me as chillingly sad and plausible (although not of course universally so, thankfully). Polley seems to invite such disparate reactions, sometimes switching within seconds from apparent elation to something more ambiguous, if not its opposite (I would never have imagined that the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star could be used so productively) – if we felt we fully grasped Margot, it could only be by denying some aspect of her complexity. It helps immeasurably that Michelle Williams – observed here with almost eerie care and fullness – could probably take a collection of completely random sentences and make a compelling character out of them. But then, aren’t most of us more like a collection of random sentences than like the controlled, diagrammatized characters of mainstream cinema?
The real infantilism in the movie seems attached to Margot and Lou’s relationship, which expresses itself through a high degree of baby talk, verbal games and silly pranks, and seemingly little sexual heat. Again, nothing “wrong” with this, if that’s where your desires take you, but Polley presents very skillfully how such solicitude and security could easily become an arid trap. Daniel’s desire for her is very explicitly sexual, summed up in a monologue where he tells her exactly what he’d like to do with her: Williams’ delight at this is palpable – watching the movie a few days after Nora Ephron died, I couldn’t help thinking of that “I’ll have what she’s having’ line from When Harry Met Sally. But in one of the film’s most striking leaps, Polley later on stamps this as a more complex desire than we likely took it for, by intimating that their relationship will lead to threesome activity, with both men and women (Bruce McDonald’s This Movie is Broken, another glowing hymn to Toronto, did something similar near the end – perhaps we’ll end up as the acknowledged cinematic capital of pansexuality, which wouldn’t be so bad).
Anyway, I was very surprised how Take this Waltz played in my mind afterwards, as if it might actually be addictive. Its beauty always seems anchored in inner states, never becoming academic; it’s so full of memorable moments that I lost count. It seems to me an astonishing advance from Away with Her – like comparing a short story to a big overflowing, sensuous mixed-media narrative installation. Now, that probably points to the film’s limitation though, that given the choice, you might sometimes just prefer a well-crafted short story. The problem with Polley’s awareness of alternate possibilities and directions is that you start to wonder whether the film is just a series of evasions; whether it shouldn’t ultimately be giving us something more specific. There’s not much anger in there – at the main points where it seems warranted, Polley cuts around it, or looks away. A great director like the French Maurice Pialat knew how to present the extremity of human behaviour, from its most tender to its most savage, without betraying economic truth or the reality of a particular time and place. But how often does a Canadian filmmaker even demand to be gently critiqued in such terms? By the time Polley’s done, maybe she’ll be the one they compare everyone else against, and she’ll even have made this the place they compare the other places against.