The observational acuity Sarah Polley brought to her haunting 2007 feature debut as writer-director, Away From Her, was especially remarkable from a filmmaker who was not yet 30 at the time, tackling a story of old age and dementia with soulful integrity. In Take This Waltz, the protagonist is closer to Polley’s own age, and possibly, her direct experience, dealing with conflicted desires and relationship uncertainties that most of us have faced. However, this sophomore feature is a stumble backwards in terms of maturity.
For most of its self-indulgently stretched running time of close to two hours, this insubstantial film is about inaction. But it has a hard time deciding if it wants to be a happy-sad, flaky comedy or a dreamy mood piece. The presence of the always disarmingly naturalistic Michelle Williams in the lead role of Margot steers it in the latter direction, but this is no Blue Valentine. It’s basically one long string of indie-film affectations.
Cute and quirky can get very tired very fast, and there’s an awful lot of both here. Working from her own screenplay, Polley has Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby) meet during a historical re-enactment for tourists of an adulterer’s public castigation in the town square of an 18th century French fortress in Nova Scotia. Next up, the pair find themselves seatmates on the same connecting flight back to Toronto, discovering on the flirty cab ride from the airport that they live across the street from one another. Coincidence? Destiny? Whimsy? Whatever.
Only upon arrival does Margot inform Daniel that she’s married. “He’s the kindest, gentlest person in the world,” she later says of cuddly husband Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook writer working on a volume of chicken recipes. While he sautés poultry and shoots her doe-eyed glances all day, she contemplates her encroaching feelings of emptiness. Penning tourism brochures while waiting to become a real writer, she pines for Daniel. He pulls a rickshaw around town, gazes across the water every morning and paints in his spare time, but lacks the confidence to show his art publicly.
Over the hot Toronto summer, Margot and Daniel keep finding ways to bump into each other, stealing moments together to dance around their mutual attraction without ever acting on it. This gives her the opportunity to wear an endless series of adorable sundresses that show off the heart-shaped birthmark on her shoulder. The not-quite-lovebirds chirp about sex over martinis, eat watermelon on a ferry and whirl around on an amusement park ride to vintage Brit pop, their smiles melting into painful longing. These people are like parodied figures out of a Belle and Sebastian song.
The actors all approach their roles with sincerity, and it’s hard not to feel bad in particular for Rogen, whose sweet, open-hearted awkwardness recalls his more youthful work in the evergreen Freaks and Geeks. But Polley’s dialogue is so over-written that almost every word out of the characters’ mouths sounds phony.
Only in the final half-hour, when Margot takes a decisive step and then has to live with her actions does the film acquire a glimmer of emotional depth. Even then, the director can’t resist slapping quirky touches on everything. When Lou’s recovering alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman) falls off the wagon, she randomly dumps a box of baby chicks into the arms of her devastated husband (Graham Abbey). Polley too rarely trusts the moments of pathos to speak for themselves. (It’s a pleasure, however, to see Silverman bring her jaded wisdom to a low-key role.)
While the film is ambiguous in its take on Margot’s experience, it suggests that passion is deceptive, and that everything new eventually gets old, which could either be a comfort or a curse. That bittersweet view is shared during a selfconsciously unselfconscious full-frontal nude shower scene with women of all shapes, ages and sizes, following an aqua-fitness class with a swishy gay instructor. Yes, more gratuitous cuteness.
Luc Montpellier’s cinematography has a lustrous sheen, shifting between warm, buttery light and bright, over-saturated colors. But even the visuals seem artificial, with houses painted in playful shades and interiors dripping in boho design statements.
The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song heard when the inevitable finally happens between Margot and Daniel, and much of the featherweight film could almost be a music video. The scene takes place in a fabulous sun-drenched loft space that suggests Toronto rickshaw drivers must be raking it in, just one of countless ways in which the world onscreen here feels bogus.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Joe’s Daughter
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman, Graham Abbey
Director/screenwriter: Sarah Polley
Producers: Susan Cavan, Sarah Poley
Director of photography: Luc Montpellier
Production designer: Matthew Davies
Music: Jody Colero
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Editor: Christopher Donaldson
Sales: TF1 International
No rating, 116 minutes.