Take This Waltz is a film which has so far divided audiences; it’s been heralded as both an emotional and visual triumph as well as self-conscious hipster drivel. Personally I’m much more inclined to agree with the former, because this really got under my skin in a way in which very few films do. I actually watched it like a week ago, but it’s still in my head, and I’ve felt increasingly compelled to write something about it. The last time I can recall identifying with something in such a visceral manner was when I seen Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Synecdoche, New York in the cinema. In many ways Sarah Polley’s second directorial effort is similar to Synecdoche, though more traditionally structured, in its articulation of human nature (both deal with themes of decay and the fallibility of commitment) and the audience response it will receive; the hoards of misinterpretations surrounding the films themes over on the Imdb messageboards speak for themselves.
Take This Waltz has a conventional, even quite schmaltzy and unbelievable, set up as a freelance writer named Margot (Michelle Williams) briefly meets charming artist Daniel (Luke Kirby) whilst on a fact-finding trip. There is a hint of chemistry between the two and then - would you believe it - they are sitting next to one another on the flight home. There is a much more potent connection here and one would expect a traditional romantic comedy to unfold, but it turns out that Daniel lives across the street from the home which Margot shares with her husband Lou (an impressively grounded performance from Seth Rogen). That sounds like a spanner in the works! It’s easy to be dismissive of the films exposition because this is where the schmaltz ends; in fact the remainder of the film is really quite naturalistic.
This is not a film with big gestures or audience signposts, character motivations are often complex and only alluded to with the slightest of glances. On the surface Lou and Margot appear to be really happy, almost sickeningly happy in fact; in a lesser film it would come off as contrived but there is a natural chemistry between Williams and Rogen. Chemistry might be the wrong word though, it’s more like a sense of comfort, their relationship feels lived in. Which might seem like kind of a trivial point but it’s so vital to the impact of the film, it’s apparent that they know each other inside out and whilst that’s reassuring it’s also quite boring. The feel we get for the little details of their relationship is similar to those which made Blue Valentine seem so affecting. With such magnification we begin to see some reason why Margot might feel she could justify to herself the decision to give in to more primal sexual urges and cheat on her husband.
The plot beats play out much like you might expect them too, as Margot begins seeking out encounters with the mysterious Daniel who becomes a symbol of romantic excitement for her. Although she seems to do a great deal of the chasing that doesn’t mean that we can’t empathise with Williams character, as Polley scrutinises this lack of excitement and fulfilment across several scenes where Lou spends all his time cooking chicken (he’s writing a chicken book!). I suppose it’s this notion which Polley explores so well though, and which gives a potentially lame film some real emotional resonance. We’ve all experienced an absence of some sort, it’s clear that Margot feels something missing from her life as the vitality of her marriage wilts before her. The way the film plays out asks questions about where we ought to place the blame for this hollow feeling, of course it most commonly is considered a relationship problem. Perhaps though it’s simply an unavoidable section of life, to get anywhere you have to travel (the film has a horribly trite airport metaphor relating to this which doesn’t bare repeating) and inevitably that can cause a lull every now and then, without it necessarily meaning you ought to pack everything in.
Needless to say Margot learns such lessons the hard way, but the journey which she takes there as well as the skilled magnification of small moments which other films are often inclined to skip over and the refusal to give into a traditionally happy ending makes this a very rewarding watch.