Take This Waltz

May 29, 2012

At its most basic level, the virtue of a good pop song is its immediacy.  It can swing you through a number of emotions by combining lyrics and melody and production, all in a quick and easy three minutes and twenty seconds.  There’s a kind of thoughtless joy to tapping into the basic emotions of happiness or heartbreak or love or loss.  This isn’t to say that pop songs can’t also have subtlety – most of the best ones do – but their broad appeal is still that surface-level aesthetic quality.  Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz gets its name from the titular Leonard Cohen song, and indeed it features during a crucial and technically accomplished – if a bit showy – montage towards the end of the film, but the real musical touchstone that features is The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, and if the film had understood that the pop song aesthetic was better for this material then the woozy, intricate, and beautiful Cohen number, it would probably be a lot better.

This is not to say the subject matter is shallow, or that the intention is thoughtless.  I think Polley has some really interesting things to say about relationships and she’s keen to explore those themes.  Margot (Michelle Williams) is a freelance writer working on a pamphlet for a historical fort.  While there she an encounter with a dashing young man named Daniel (Luke Kirby), who then happens to be sitting next to her on the plane ride home where they share a witty, flirty conversation that too-quickly veers into thick, gloppy metaphor.  They share a taxi from the airport only to find that they are, in fact, neighbours.  Margot, it turns out, is married to the loveable Lou (Seth Rogen), and she finds herself unable to step away from her budding relationship with her attractive new friend.  The very movie-like absurdity of the premise is not in and of itself a problem – these things are a jumping-off point and the real interest is in exploring what the characters do and how it all plays out –, but the manner in which artificial plot contrivances just continue throughout puts the film on uneven ground.  Is this a serious, intimate drama about realistic people and the difficulties of negotiation restlessness and desire, or is it a genre exercise interested in deconstructing the tropes to come to a greater truth?

Part of the problem is the sheer clunkiness that rears its ugly head on too-many occasions.  The writing can be on the nose to a distracting degree, and because of that any notion of genuine subtlety doesn’t last very long.  Occasionally this can be viewed as intentional, maybe, as Margot’s romantic – but chaste – interludes with Daniel could be appealing to her just because of their heightened movie quality and so the writing could be trying to emphasize that.  Either way, it doesn’t work.  The elements of fantasy running through here are just too pervasive.  Margot is a freelance writer and Lou is trying to write a cookbook, so the fact that they can afford to live their lovingly bohemian existence stretches credulity.  Even worse is Daniel, who lives in a lovely little apartment on this nice street and all he does is run a bloody rickshaw around Toronto.  If I’m wrong about this, please tell me, because I need to start packing to live in this glorious city of dreams immediately.

The shame of it is that it didn’t really have to be like this.  Much of the film verges on indie-quirky cliché, but despite those borderline-cloying moments between them, Williams and Rogen nicely play Lou and Margot’s relationship.  There’s a charming familiarity to their rapport, and Polley wisely avoids setting up an aura of boring mundanity between the two that doesn’t allow for an easy, pre-determined viewer perspective on the outcome.  In particular, there’s a running gag involving cold water in the shower that is paid off beautifully; it is simultaneously bittersweet and utterly devastating in its implications of a false perception, and Williams’ realization is heart wrenching.  The idea that this is just something that “happens” is certainly worthy of exploration, but Polley feels it necessary to pound the similarities and contrasts between the two relationships (as well as the requisite external comparison, here between Margot’s alcoholic sister-in-law and her husband) in increasingly awkward ways.  This is a film in which Margot’s urination is something of a leitmotif.  A more relaxed, naturalistic approach could have provided a more plausible and, very likely, more moving portrayal of a couple’s drift and the way a third party becomes the catalyst for that drift’s acceleration.  I shouldn’t be reviewing a movie that wasn’t made, but the disjoint between the naturalistic familiarty of Margot’s home life and the rom-com rendezvous of her extra-marital is such a hurdle to fully engaging with such a promising story and talented actors that I couldn’t help but spend much of the film thinking about how a number of scenes could have been handled differently.

Then there’s the Buggles.  Margot and Daneil go to a chintzy funfair and ride an in-door twirly ride.  The camera locks onto them as the lights go down and the tacky disco-coloured flashing begins.  “Video Killed the Radio Star” starts its delicate intro, and there’s an eager sense of anticipation on Margot’s face.  The ride starts, the song takes off, and then fun turns every so slightly into a moment of nausea, before finally erupting into unmitigated joy.  Then the lights turn up abruptly, song cuts off, and the ride stops.  It is heavy-handed, sure, but subtlety is not this film’s strength.  In this context, however, it works perfectly well because there’s something about the pop song – this pop song, even, as it is steeped in wistful rumination on transition – that allows for that kind of giddy excitement and immediate emotional impact.  The problems with this film lie firmly with Polley, and while it might be telling that the best scene in the movie has no dialogue, it’s also evident that she’s also very talented in other ways.  It might be important for her to understand that not everyone can pull off the musical and poetic intricacies of Leonard Cohen, and that’s just fine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being The Buggles.



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