Take This Waltz: directed and written by Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s second full-length feature Take This Waltz unfolds with significantly less assuredness than her first. It gave me some pause to decide on that particular sentence as a lead because I suspect that the restlessness with which the film unfolds might be some sort of met attempt by Polley to get inside the head of her very somewhat restless protagonist. Whatever it is, much of the film expands in spurts making for meandering moments of mundaneness followed by moments of insightfulness. Case in point – the film’s finest scene. At a carnival ride Margot and her neighbour, a sometimes painter she is beginning to fall in “love” with, ride on the Scrambler in the dark as The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays on for a good four minutes. Right there Polley beautifully encapsulates the main thrust of the story in an excellent manner.
The Buggles “Video…” is a song with much wisdom. It is a song about nostalgia and the manner in which something new (video) is always there waiting to replace the old and there’s always that state of sadness which comes with looking back. The song, though, brilliantly fools you into a fitful of happiness with its electronic sound and it is not until it’s over that you realise that the glee felt during the music was just a way of eschewing the pain of the lyrics. In the same way after that deceptively peppy Scrambler ride with Margot and her would-be lover the two are left in an awkward state of unease. Here the effectiveness of Polley’s meta-like direction style is well used, elsewhere – not so much.
Margot takes that ride on the Scrambler with her neighbour because her affable but uninteresting marriage to her husband has descended to a state of ennui. Margot confesses early in the film that she doesn’t like being caught in the in-between. For example the concept of airports – space between the destination and the departure point – unnerves her. And as her pleasant marriage begins to change into something just as pleasant, perhaps, but not as enticing the concept of the in-between Margot becomes restless and in trying to fill in that gap grows closer to the newer and more exciting Daniel. Due to Margot’s own restlessness, though, Polley telegraphs a number of indications that Margot shall never truly be able to fill those gaps.
My main quandary with Take This Waltz becomes its lack of narrative focus. Is Take this Waltz the story of a failing marriage? The story of a blossoming extramarital affair? A rumination on life in the suburbs? Of course a film could very well be about all three but Polley seems to be working on such a deliberately small canvas that the film lacks that potent sense of cohesion which a film overflowing with such themes would demand. The film raises a significant question but doesn’t address it with as much deftness as it demands. Is love ever, truly, lasting? Or does every relationship ultimately drift into something strained? The suggestions are there but the exploration is vague.
And, yet, the film boasts four good to great performances. Polley is a fine director, certainly and her ability to elicit goodness from her performers is laudable. Their ability to dig below the surface of the sometimes specious script almost tricks one into thinking that the film is sometimes even better than just standard. The sensitivity with which Polley considers Margot, though, is lost on the other elements of the story lending itself to a film which feels top-heavy – full of intriguing ideas, but unable adequately examine them. Were those moments of goodness truly real: (the aforementioned scene on The Scrambler, another scene set to song – this time the eponymous Leonard Cohen tune, an awkward first “date” with Margot and her lover) or does Take the Waltz merely reach individual heights unable to coalesce into a heightened whole? What we’re left with is ultimately a satisfactory film with outstanding individual bits. And….I’m okay with that.
All’s Fair / C+
It's not over yet, two (more) separate musings on the film below the jump, and that penultimate scene...
Extended A/N #1: I feel like a significant bit of this review bears startling similarities to The Deep Blue Sea. Initially this was merely incidental but over time the way that Davie’s adaptation unfolds bears striking resemblance to Take This Waltz. Both films depend on the unfortunate situation where the leading lady is caught in the middle between an old love and a new one, unable to be completely happy in either. Perhaps it’s the source, but The Deep Blue Sea (even with its specificity of focus on Hester) considers the situation with a more pronounced sense of distinction than Take This Waltz. they certainly would make an interesting double feature, though.
Extended A/N #2: For example, that feeling of Margot going in circles comes from the opening scene and the scene just before the final shot which seems to be the same scene but then might not be. Does the film open in the present and lead us to the moment where Margot is in the kitchen? Or, is it two separate moments in the kitchen but where Margot's ennui is so fully realised that with two different men she reaches the same level of dissatisfaction? I'm moved to think it is the latter which suggests so much more about this character than Polley's sometimes unnecessary dopey-like construction seems willing to divulge.