So, my third ‘Best Movie of the Year’ and the score is Canada 2 Hong Kong 1 – I wouldn’t have predicted that in January. (See Monsieur Lazhar and A Simple Life.) Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. I was bowled over by writer-director Sarah Polley’s Away From Her in 2006 (and she acts as well – it isn’t fair is it?) and Michelle Williams is arguably the finest actor of her generation. In the space of a year she made Meek’s Cutoff, My Life With Marilyn and Take This Waltz. Three very different roles, all nailed with precision. I thought I also caught a trace of a Canadian accent in this one.
On the other hand, there appears to be a host of gainsayers for Take This Waltz. Reading reviews, user comments and bulletin board posts on IMDb reveals a tirade of, I’m guessing, mainly men, (possibly young American men?) and audiences generally who apply a moral stance on romance which seems to blind them to what is actually on the screen. Fortunately there are plenty of others who see the film more clearly for what it is. What it isn’t is a romantic comedy – not even an indie, ‘alternative’ rom-com. Instead it’s a romantic drama with some comic moments. It might be a melodrama but I need to think about that. I shed a tear in the last ten minutes but not a flood. Having never seen a Hollywood ‘bromance’ or indeed a Seth Rogen film before, I didn’t have the preconceptions that some audiences may have held. (Rogen, by the way, is Canadian and this was his first Canadian film.)
Michelle Williams is Margot, 28 years old in August 2010 and married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen). They are happy in their domesticity. She writes (after a fashion) and he, more specifically, writes cookbooks – entirely about cooking chicken. It’s an interesting premise. On the one hand the film is quite gritty and real about relationships – on the other it’s a romance fantasy taking place in a sweltering Toronto summer of primary colours. It’s quite tricky keeping these two ideas in play at the same time and that may be the reason that some audiences misread the film completely.
On a trip to Louisbourg in Nova Scotia to write notes for a tourist guide, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) who turns out to live across the street from her in Toronto. She’s never noticed him before, but she falls for him immediately. She and Lou love each other and they have an intimacy, but the passion has gone and they don’t talk to each other. There are other potential problems as well. Margot and Daniel clearly have an erotic charge between them. Will they allow it to become real rather than imagined? How will Margot deal with her relationship with Lou?
The narrative focuses completely on Margot and Michelle Williams is hardly ever off the screen. She acts with every inch of her body and wears an array of shorts and sundresses that have been described as ‘vintage’ and ‘cutesy’. I’m no judge of fashion but they certainly look traditional. I’m not sure that they are flattering but they are oddly sexy in the way that she wears them. Her face is wonderfully malleable – and it’s shown as hot and sticky, embarrassed and happy and often stunningly beautiful. The care and attention given to the presentation of suburban ‘Little Portugal’ in Toronto and the mise en scène of Margot’s house is just as striking as the costume design. It’s matched too by the camerawork from Luc Montpellier (who also shot Away From Her) and the soundtrack of folk/indie/Americana. It’s a very affecting soundtrack – and strikingly Canadian, both in the origin of several tracks and the overall feel/tone. The film’s title is taken from a Leonard Cohen song based on the poem ‘Little Viennese Waltz’ by Federico Garcia Lorca and Polley has said that she played the song incessantly while developing her script for the film.
There are many interesting aspects to the film, both in terms of how it creates meanings and the kinds of controversies it has created for different audiences. One such controversy is the nudity in a scene in which Margot and her sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) are showering after an ‘aquatic aerobics’ class. Sarah Polley shoots the scene mostly in long shot and both women are naked – as are the other women in the class, of different shapes and sizes and ethnicities, but mostly older. The bodies on display are those of ‘ordinary’, ‘real’, not Hollywood women, none self-conscious and all in different ways, beautiful. At one point Geraldine asks herself, out loud, “Why do I shave my legs, who is it for?” Another, older, woman comments that “What is new will become old.” All this seems to be part of the lesson that Margot isn’t learning (yet). It’s a crucial scene and not gratuitous. No one would bat an eye if it appeared in a European film but in puritan North America it may be a problem. There is a montage of sex scenes later in the film, again in long shot, but in the UK the film has been given a ’15’ Certificate which seems about right. IMDb shows that in Quebec and British Columbia the film is certificated 13 and 14 respectively, yet in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario (Polley’s home province) it’s an 18 and in the US it’s an ‘R’ .
The second ‘controversy’ appears to concern morality. Outraged commentators see Margot or Daniel decried as ‘marriage wreckers’ and characters with whom an audience can have no sympathy. Alternatively, Margot is ‘stupid’. I genuinely find these comments bizarre. The film is presumably not mainstream because, in fact, there are no good guys and no bad guys – and the ending of the film is ambiguous as to how Margot feels about what has happened. This is the strength of the film. Michelle Williams is so good at presenting Margot to us that we feel she is just like someone we know. OK, she still has plenty to learn about being in a relationship, but we all do at such a tender age. This is a great humanist movie – and probably a melodrama (music, coincidences, ‘excessive’ colours, use of symbols are all there – you’ll notice just how important the Buggles song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ is.) When Margot and Lou go out to the movies on their fifth wedding anniversary, they go to see arguably the most celebrated film in Canadian cinema – Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971). Ms Polley knows her cinema.
There is a ton of stuff on YouTube about the film including clips and interviews. This is the best trailer, I think: