“I feel like this film does raise questions that can be uncomfortable for people,” Sarah Polley told Indiewire about her second directorial effort, “Take This Waltz.” “About familiarity and passion… and whether those things are mutually exclusive. That’s been really interesting to get to listen to the conversations that come out of that and hear the debates that break out in terms of which characters people sympathize with and which ones they don’t.”
Those conversations and debates are about to be heard across North America as “Waltz” makes its theatrical debut this weekend, nine months after it premiered in Polley’s hometown at the Toronto International Film Festival (the films is also currently available on VOD via Magnolia Pictures).
Undeniable in its authenticity and perception, the film is Polley’s follow-up to her universally acclaimed directorial debut, “Away From Her” (which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay). Based on her first original feature script, it stars Michelle Williams as Margot, a 28-year-old aspiring writer married for five 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 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.
In said trouble Polley approaches a common cinematic theme — love versus lust and why we make the decision to stay or leave a relationship; all with an intelligent, heartfelt spirit essentially extinct from Hollywood romantic comedies. When it all comes together, it’s difficult to avoid feeling awed by Polley’s gently profound musings on love, life, and how we often selfishly handle both.
“I wanted to make a film about the concept of emptiness and about life having a gap in it,” Polley said of the film. “I had this idea of having the film beginning and ending with the same image of a woman sweltering hot in kitchen, content but feeling like there was something essential missing. A kind of feeling of emptiness hanging over her. All I knew about the film was that it would begin and end with that image and that in between we would see her try and upend her entire life to try and avoid that very feeling.”
Polley said that secondary to that came the idea of making a film about relationships and romantic desire.
“We blame that feeling of emptiness very often on our romantic relationships or our lack thereof,” she said.
Despite a lot of raw emotion on display, Polley insists the film’s is not at all autobiographical.
“I feel like I connect to all of these characters very equally and that I’ve been bits of all these characters at various points in my life,” she said. “I feel like everyone who sees the film seems to connect to one character over another. It’s interesting to me. Some people love Michelle’s character and some people really hate her. Some people love Seth Rogen’s character. Other people think she should have left him years ago. It doesn’t seem to me like there’s an obvious point of view in terms of the characters.”
There also aren’t any obvious answers in terms of the narrative. Polley never relies on convention to explore her story. It 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?
“Because the film wasn’t specifically personal to me in terms of the story,” Polley said, “it sort of just felt like making any other film where it’s talking about things or saying things you’re interesting in spreading conversation about.”
Another topic of conversation likely to spread from “Waltz” is the way it uniquely approaches sexuality. The film has many scenes of explicit nudity, including some incredibly sexy moments between Williams and Kirby. But it also explores nudity without a romantic context, particularly in one scene where Williams and a bunch of other women of all sizes and ages are showering after a swim in the pool.
“A lot of the film is about sexual restlessness and sexual desire,” Polley said. “I didn’t want to shy away from it. I certainly didn’t want to shy away from the human body. But I also wanted to avoid some of the cliches that I’ve seen in films like this before. The shower scene for me was a way of combatting some of that stuff. I feel like whenever we see the female body in films — at least in North American, English-speaking films — I do feel the female body is either objectified or made fun of, depending on what age it is. I just wanted to — since I was going to be showing the human body in a sexual context anyway — show it in a more everyday way as well without too much comment.”
Polley also wanted to show something equally underrepresented on the big screen: Her hometown. “Take This Waltz” is a rare high-profile film not only shot in Toronto, but set there. Save “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” it’s hard to find an example of a Toronto-set film with well-known actors and a considerable American release.
“It was really important for me to have Toronto play a central character in the film and to really feel the texture of the city in the summer,” she said. “I wanted to show Toronto through the romantic goggles I see it. I feel there’s a lot about Toronto in the film that is real and is what I love about the city… and a lot of it is a little bit of a fairy tale about Toronto.”
Polley certainly doesn’t hold back in showcasing this love, fairy tale or real. 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.
“It does have Canadianisms and Toronto stuff in it but at the same time what I think is funny is that I didn’t intentionally slather it with Canadian references,” Polley laughed. “I just feel like we’re so used to seeing Toronto disguised that as soon as someone doesn’t disguise it seems like it’s incredibly self-conscious. I feel like I wasn’t incredibly self-conscious about making it overly Canadian. I think I just didn’t try to avoid it being Canadian.”
Polley is currently spending most of her time in Canada focusing on her latest project: Motherhood. Her daughter was born earlier this year, and recent press for “Waltz” has been the first time she’s been, uh, away from her.
“Right now I’m not juggling anything,” she said. “I’m just staying at home with my baby. So it’s quite easy. This is the only time I’ve had away from her since she’s been born. But generally, I’m not a workaholic. I feel like I do kind of one thing at a time and I do them kind of slowly. I don’t do a lot of juggling. I feel I’m interested in a lot of different things but I tend to do them all kind of separately and in their own space.”
But Polley has optioned Margaret Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace,” and confirmed she had begun working on the screenplay before giving birth.
“When I return to work that’ll be what I do first,” Polley said.
We can’t wait. In the meantime, “Take This Waltz” opens in theaters this Friday.