After debuting at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” had its US premiere at Tribeca this Sunday. Highly anticipated after Polley’s acclaimed directorial debut “Away From Her,” the film was intially met with a considerably more mixed response. And now having seen it, I get why. The film is clearly far from perfect. Some scenes feel very out of place and unnecessary. The tone is uneven. The dialogue occasionally overwritten.
But within this messiness lies a film that is undeniable in its authenticity and perception, and one I’m falling a little in love with in retrospect. Polley approaches a common cinematic theme — love vs. lust and why we make the decision to stay or leave a relationship — with such a intelligent, heartfelt spirit that it’s easy to look past the film’s shortcomings. When it all comes together, you almost forget all about them and instead just feel awed by Polley’s gently profound musings on love, life, and how we often selfishly handle both.
The film stars Michelle Williams as Margot, a 28 year old aspiring writer married for 5 years to Lou (Seth Rogen), a chicken cookbook author who clearly adores her. But their relationship is somewhat stagnant despite its sweetness, and Margot is definitely not entirely satisfied. With Lou, or with anything. Enter sexy artist dude Daniel (Luke Kirby), who she meets and flirts with on a work trip only to find out he lives across the street. And of course, trouble ensues.
But its not the sort of trouble you might expect. Polley handles the narrative distinctly, never relying on convention. This includes the attraction beween Margot and Daniel, which Polley takes on in a refreshingly feminine way, resulting in an awesome sexiness that’s very unexpected. “Waltz” isn’t tied all up with a perfect ending, nor does it bring resolve to the questions it asks. And there are many: Why do we always want something new over what we already have? And why DON’T we actually go for it? Are we simply afraid of being afraid? Is monogamy even possible? Do sex and love really go hand in hand? Is love even real?
Polley doesn’t really offer any answers because she knows those questions don’t really have any. They are all remarkably subjective, and “Take This Waltz” never tells us what we want to hear (unlike another Tribeca Film Festival rom com). The fact that this is even possible is aided by the fact that Polley doesn’t really need to please anyone but herself with this film if she doesn’t want to. Financed in large part by Canadian government arts agencies, “Take This Waltz” — while techically a romantic comedy with bankable stars — is clearly not meant to break banks on opening weekend. It’s made to represent Polley’s vision as an artist, and Canada itself. And that it does.
Just as she did with “Away From Her,” Polley makes absolutely no attempt to hide the film’s Canadian setting. Quite the opposite. There’s a trip to Toronto’s Royal Cinema, coffee in Kensington Market, a glimpse of the CN Tower… At one point, Margot and Lou are watching Canadian TV news coverage of the the minor earthquake that hit Ottawa a year or so back. Margot even constantly carries around a Pages Bookstore tote (the iconic Toronto bookstore that went under last year), and her and Daniel share poutine during an afternoon in Toronto’s The Beach neighbourhood. For a Toronto kid, that made for a pretty gleeful experience.
She also makes Toronto look more colourful and beautiful (on screen, and perhaps in real life) than I’ve ever seen it. Vibrant colours, adorable streets, dreamy houses… All aided by the endless beauty that are Michelle Williams’ perfect sundresses. Granted, it’s something of a misrepresentation. “Take This Waltz” seems to have been filmed exclusively in Toronto’s most gorgeous neighbourhoods, and suggests a seamless geography between them (at one point Williams makes the trip from Parkdale to The Beach — a good 2 or 3 hour walk — appear like a 5 minute jog). But it’s lovely to see Polley giving Toronto the aesthetic makeover it wholly deserves.
So it probably sounds like I’m a bit biased. I’ll add to that by professing my love for Sarah Polley in general. I have since I watched her on “Road To Avonlea” as a kid. I loved when at 12 she basically told Disney executives to fuck off when they suggested she remove an anti-Gulf War peace sign she wore to an awards show. I loved when at 16 she broke her teeth at a protest of Mike Harris’s wretched conservative government. I loved how at 21 she turned down Kate Hudson’s role in “Almost Famous” to star in a tiny Canadian film directed by John Greyson. I loved when at 27 she wowed everyone by giving us “Away From Her.” Most of all, though, I love how she’s resisted the great Canadian dream of moving to America to pursue art — a tradition Polley continues here and takes to a new level by bringing an American star to Canada to make a film aboot Canadians. That is a waltz I suspect no director has ever taken (sorry, I went there).
“Waltz” is being released in theaters this summer. Until then, check out video from the screening’s Q&A below with Williams, Kirby and Sarah Silverman (who plays Rogen’s sister in the film and I’ll admit I felt was somewhat miscast). Polley just had a baby, so she could not attend. Also – spoiler alert – the discussion touches on the ending (though in a somewhat vague way) so avoid it if you don’t wanna know nothing:
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