Back in 2007, Sarah Polley struck it big with the critics in her directorial debut Away from Her. Now comes her second film, Take This Waltz, and she seems to have lost some of her sheen with a section of the critical populace. (I am suspicious that part of this may be due to certain people who just live to cry, “Sophomore slump.”) And there’s no denying that this is a more difficult film because it lacks a truly sympathetic character at its center. While Polley very carefully never judges any of her characters, neither does she go out of her way to make them especially likable. And in at least one respect — Canadian TV actor Luke Kirby — I think the casting may exacerbate this. Something about him comes across as…well, smarmy, for want of a better word.
Plus, this film is stylistically quite different from its predecessor in that it’s showier, more adventurous. This will inevitably rile the minimalist crowd, who will see this as a step down from her first film. Since I’m not in that crowd, I’m more inclined to view this as the work of a filmmaker who has become sufficiently comfortable with the mechanics of storytelling that she feels confident enough to stretch her artistic muscles.
The story itself is straightforward and simple. Contentedly (as opposed to happily) married Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Kirby) while away from home. They’re immediately drawn to each other. They flirt and then have the bad luck to find out they live across the street from each other, which immediately puts a strain on Margot’s relationship with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen). Lou is much less of a romantic ideal (well, it’s Rogen) than Daniel — and it probably doesn’t help that he spends all his time working on his cookbook for seemingly endless ways to prepare chicken. What follows is fairly predictable. The way it’s presented and the path it ultimately takes is not. Most of the scenes are carefully designed to lead to some later point that will give them a shattering emotional resonance. Everything — from the rather grotesque manner in which Margot and Lou try to playfully outdo each other in devising horrible death scenarios for each other, to Lou’s personal running gag of pouring cold water on Margot in the shower — will have its sad (or worse) counterpart.
It is a film of great sadness — and it’s the sadness of someone who one suspects has first-hand knowledge of bad decisions that can’t be fixed. The only part that feels a little false is what might be called the “Take This Waltz” sequence (it’s set to the Leonard Cohen song). Here is the one instance where Polley’s more elaborate use of cinematic technique may get the better of her. The idea of presenting the trajectory of Margot’s relationship with Daniel in a long, circular take — cleverly broken up by passing a space of black — is certainly appealing conceptually, but, for me at least, it doesn’t quite work. The fact that it too quickly encompasses too much — especially with a couple of bits that come across as sleazy — is, I think, where it goes wrong. It definitely throws the ending off, but not so completely that the film doesn’t recover. Yes, it’s an imperfect film — and one where the unflinching nudity and sex may bother some viewers — but it’s a worthwhile one that’s almost achingly haunting. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity.