Sarah Polley's sophomore effort revolves around a married woman and her increasingly urgent obsession for the man next door. Because Michelle Williams is fearless in the lead role, and Seth Rogen is perfectly empathetic as the heartbroken husband, we may be tempted to judge these characters, but the beauty of Polley's movie is its honesty in the face of human foibles. She forces us to look at the existential void of life before assigning blame to specific parties.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
In a summer of revisionist fairy tales, Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz offers the deepest rewrite of all, because it questions everything.
A deconstructed romance that pulls apart the assumptions surrounding mating, marriage and altruistic love, this sophomore effort from Canada's cinematic wunderkind pushes the status quo so hard, it forces the viewer to examine his or her own moral stance in the opening act.
Harsh summer light and a pale blue sky hang over the fortress at Louisberg, a national historic site on Cape Breton, where we watch a mild-mannered young woman in a dress and hoodie take notes at the re-enactment of colonial-era judicial procedure.
A man is locked in stocks and flogged. The sign around his neck reads "adulterer."
The woman in the dress is asked to participate in the flogging, and she reluctantly obliges with a gentle swat to the back of the actor while another spectator -- a rather handsome fellow with a rakish grin -- urges her to "put her back into it."
Polley gives us all the pieces of the ensuing puzzle in these first frames, even before the two strangers flirt, end up on the same plane and suddenly discover they are next-door neighbours.
This is a story of fate and consequence, but more than anything, it's about our human compulsion to seek happiness outside of ourselves.
Margot (Michelle Williams) has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for years and they seem like a great couple, but when she gets back from the Maritimes with a new bee in her bonnet, everything Margot took for granted begins to melt.
Her comfortable life with Lou begins to look predictable and dull compared to the palpitations of excitement she felt with Daniel (Luke Kirby). Suddenly every milk crate is a primary colour and every song fills her with a longing for sexual communion.
Margot is lost in romantic limbo, struggling with her friendship and love for Lou, but feeling increasingly sweaty every time she sees Daniel. Watching her tread water in the tide pool of her roiling emotions forms the entirety of the movie, and from a purely escapist perspective, this can make for some frustrating moments.
Polley denies Margot any easy sense of empathy. She does not let her off the hook by making her husband an obnoxious or abusive bore, and she does not make Daniel a glowing knight on horseback.
Most movies offer these runaway lanes for out of control female characters to ensure we like them. Because if we don't like the leading lady, we usually don't like the movie, and this is certainly the main threat to Polley's success in Take This Waltz.
Even with Michelle Williams' tremendous presence holding up Margot, she feels like a total flake -- and that's because she is a total flake.
Margot has no clue about what she wants. She has even less of an idea about what she really needs, and to make things worse, she's completely incapable of looking inward for any answers.
To soothe her existential pain, she seeks the balm of sex and desire. But even with all the physical stimulation, the numbness returns.
She's not exactly the Michael Fassbender character in Shame, but she suffers from the same emotional dislocation and that makes her hard to reach.
Combined with a few childlike quirks, the character of Margot actually grows irritating, and it's at this friction point where Polley and Williams score the central victory -- even if it doesn't feel like one at first.
The fact is, we're judging Margot. We're comparing her behaviour to every image of feminine loyalty and maternal comfort we've ever experienced. By the same token, we recognize everything she's doing as entirely human, so we're kind of stuck, too.
Like Margot, we're trapped by the expectations surrounding romantic love and the moral obligations that go along with it. Judging her isn't going to make the experience any easier, but standing back and letting Polley caress the scenes will.
Directing her own script laced with subtle symbols and visual cues, Polley does a good job of not only communicating the bubbling high of being in love, she suggests all the unspoken support and cuddlesome contentment of being in a long-term partnership.
On screen, this translates into shots of Lou and Margot separated by glass while she and Daniel roam the humid streets of Hogtown, or a mid-afternoon martini with a forbidden lover versus a nightly menu of chicken with her husband.
There is no right or wrong, even if we feel compelled to come down on one side of the moral fence or the other.
As a result, Take This Waltz seems to stall because it's wandering around in a maze for the duration. Moreover, some of the dialogue feels stilted and a few of the beats miss; a niggling sense of insecurity permeates the frame.
Some may find that hard to move through, but when you recognize how brave the movie is -- and how fearless Williams proves in the lead -- you have to give this reel its due because emotionally, it rings true.
Seth Rogen is stellar as the solid good guy, and brings every dramatic moment a vulnerability that seems to escape most actors. Similarly, Sarah Silverman is also entirely empathetic as the 12-stepping sister.
Williams and Kirby aren't as easy to like, but the performances are honest. And really, that's all we should ask for, because as Polley's film proves, right and wrong are abstracts but honestly is palpable. It can also be terrifying, which is probably why we see it so rarely.