Sarah Polley’s Academy Award-nominated 2006 film, Away from Her, built on the structure of Alice Munro’s short story and explored infidelity at the end of life. Take This Waltz starts with similar problems in a young marriage, which brings the added complication of actual sex. In a romcom world, a film about a contemporary young woman seeking freedom from a stalled marriage is a provocative idea. Actress Michelle Williams, who has been a kind of standard-bearer of emotional authenticity in films from Wendy and Lucy to Blue Valentine, should be the actress to do it.
Williams plays Margot, a young 28-year-old who writes brochures for Parks Canada and hopes to become a “real writer.” Her grumpily affectionate chef husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), is writing a book of chicken recipes (yes, a symbol of cowardice), and they share a shabby-chic semi-detached Toronto home near the lake. They have a warm relationship with his extended family, including his recovering alcoholic sister, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman).
The set-up of Margot’s temptation to infidelity is cluttered with thematic signposts. While visiting Nova Scotia’s Fortress of Louisbourg site on an assignment, she is pushed by one of the costumed players into pretending to whip a man cast as an adulterer. A stranger in the crowd (Luke Kirby) teases her and later she finds the same man, Daniel, sitting on the plane next to her. There’s a conversation about why she fakes disability to take a wheelchair on to planes. She says she’s fearful of connections: “I don’t like being in between things.”
Daniel has the cockiness of a skilled seducer, embarrassing her as a way of establishing intimacy. They go from banter to open flirtation as they share a cab from the airport. By coincidence, he lives on her street. He works as a rickshaw driver and is also a closet artist, which is a lot of quirkiness for one character, but it’s a nice touch that Kirby looks like a leaner, prettier version of Rogen.
At home, Margot and Lou’s relationship is childishly playful, with an edge of aggression they can’t seem to translate into sexual friction. A favourite game is to say violent things in an endearing way: (“I love you so much I want to scoop out your eyes with a melon baller”) although the idea seems borrowed from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.
Daniel’s sexual come-on is comparatively simple, but he sometimes seems more a figment of her imagination whom she can conjure up and dismiss at will. In what is sure to become the film’s signature scene, the two agree to a meeting. Margot wants to know what he would do to her. Daniel, without touching her, tells her, in detail, a tale of uncontrollable animal lust that ends in an “I love you.” It’s like ultimate sexting. Naturally, dear reader, she melts.
As the long flirtation unfolds, Take This Waltz is an occasionally heart-fluttering but mostly exasperating affair. At best, it shows how intense sexual attraction can be a form of temporary insanity. The film places us inside Margot’s feverish psychological state, painted in passionate reds and regretful blues drifting in and out of focus.
Yet the premise is undermined by casual pacing and a protagonist who seems not 28, but 18, or younger. Margot talks about how a sunbeam on a sidewalk can make her cry; she arranges trysts with Daniel, but then changes her mind.
There’s one scene where her immaturity works well. Margot and Daniel, their attraction still unconsummated, wheel around on a children’s ride accompanied by the Buggles’ schoolyard taunt of a song, Video Killed the Radio Star, which plays on the soundtrack as a kind of a pop murder ballad.
Lou’s response to being left is catalogued in a series of direct-to-camera reaction shots. Rogen is good here and it might have been fruitful to see him have a showdown with Williams. Dramatically, there’s some justification: By the time he gets the news, Margot is already psychologically gone. On some level, it also seems plausible that he is relieved to be liberated from his chronically dissatisfied partner.
Mirroring Margot’s indecisiveness, the movie itself drifts into a series of possible endings.
The first comes when the camera wheels around Daniel and Margot’s new apartment, and the soundtrack plays Leonard Cohen’s title song, and the couple engage in a montage of sexual adventures, which have a humorous frankness. In the second ending, after the initial rush of lust, we see Margot and Daniel lapse into the domestic banalities of shared bathrooms and watching TV news. In the final, least satisfying denouement, Margot is called home for a family emergency, in which Geraldine (Silverman, as an unconvincing wisdom-imparting drunk) confronts her. By that point, I had moved well past the unusual use of Cohen crooning a song to thinking more in a Van Halen bellow: “Oh, baby, make up your mind.”