In "Take This Waltz," Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley uses the elements of a youthful Hollywood romantic drama, messes with the cliches and eschews anything nice and tidy – including her ending.
We get the romantic "meet," but it's more natural than cute. The "big gesture" doesn't tie things up in a big, beautiful romantic knot, but in a messy, loose bow. And the trio at the film's center – a young couple and their new neighbor – are flawed and immature.
Margot (Michelle Williams) is a 28-year-old freelance writer flying home to Toronto from an assignment at a historic fort in Nova Scotia. Her seatmate is Daniel (Luke Kirby), a man she saw briefly at the fort, but something is nagging them – do they know each other ?
They click immediately in an odd, uncomfortable way after he calls her out on feigning an injury to get first seating on the plane. "I'm afraid of connections at airports," she explains. Of missing planes, too, and of getting lost. We get that she's not just talking about the airport, but about her life and love, too.
"I don't like being between things" is another of her fears that will inform the entire film and will be echoed later by another character in a beautifully forlorn moment. Most of all, Margot is "afraid of being afraid." So just as Polley's script starts to border on becoming trite and cliché, she gets it back on course by having Daniel respond, "It sounds like the most dangerous thing in the world." The sublime honesty of that statement knocks the wind out of Margot. And us. The bond is complete.
Except that Margot is married. And that familiarity between them? Turns out they are neighbors. Surprise.
Where do they go from there? That's the journey the film takes as Margot and Daniel quietly dance around infidelity. There aren't feelings of a "romantic destiny" to ease through the guilt. There are no romantic fireworks going off. Just nuanced gestures. Tentative glances. Chance meetings. It's messy and confusing. Are they in love? In lust? Or is it just the newness, the possibilities that entice them? ("New things get old," we're cautioned.)
We don't know what to make of Margot's marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), a chicken cookbook author, either. They get along great, but their relationship seems to be based on affection, not passion. They speak to each other in baby talk and play silly games. ("I love you so much I want to skin you alive with a potato peeler," starts one.) It becomes more annoying than cute.
As Margot takes an inexorably long time to decide what to do, don't be surprised to lose your patience, especially as she uses her childlike traits as an excuse to tease Daniel. In the film's most honest scene, she tells him "I want to know what you do to me," leading Daniel to softly weave a tale of seduction that has her running away. ("I just kissed the top of your head, ever so gently," he says.)
As in her acting career, Polley doesn't go the easy route behind the camera. Her directorial debut was the emotionally draining 2006 drama "Away From Her," starring Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer's. Here, Polley delves into the emptiness within people. Her film seems to have two endings – a natural finale I would have preferred, then a lengthy coda of sorts that takes a dramatic, uneasy turn. Neither lets the characters find their rhythm in this intimate dance of life.
Take This Waltz
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Director: Sarah Polley
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity, strong sexual content, language.
The Lowdown: A young woman contemplates her marriage after falling in love with an artist.