Take This Waltz (MA). Director: Sarah Polley. Starring. Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogen. 112 minutes
A group of women debate whether fondness and familiarity with a long-term spouse are not better than the thrill and passion of a new relationship. If you still like your husband after decades of marriage, one argues, then that is both fortunate and preferable to the uncertainty of starting over with a new and unproven partner.
Besides, interjects another, everything new gets old. The scene takes place in a communal shower at a local swimming pool, and the contrast between the women's varied naked bodies reinforces the truth of this statement.
Take This Waltz is an intimate study of one failing marriage, and of a woman torn between the familiarity of the 'old' and the excitement and danger of the new.
It is actor Michelle Williams' second film about marriage breakdown in as many years, following 2010's devastating Blue Valentine. The marital disintegration that was the subject of that film was marked by accelerating and mutually destuctive ferocity. In Take This Waltz the breakdown is more passive and wearying, but no less horrific.
Margot (Williams) has been married to Lou (Rogen) for five years. It seems that the majority of their interactions these days are of an affectionately infantile nature: she speaks in a faux baby voice while he coos and cajoles her.
Watching these private moments feels like an invasion, but they are utterly revelatory about the nature of this relationship. Rogen, a brash comic actor who is surprisingly effective in this more dramatic role, and the always-superb Williams, nail the dynamic perfectly. To Lou this playfulness is a mark of intimacy, while to Margot it is a kind of deflection; at one point she is appalled when Lou tries to kiss her in the midst of one of these games.
In fact writer-director Polley hints frequently that Margot is in a state of arrested development. When Margot uses dated slang, a friend quips that she is stuck in 1982; we know indirectly that 1982 was actually Margot's birth year. Another key scene for Margot's character is soundtracked by the early 1980s hit 'Video Killed the Radio Star'. The film's title comes from a Leonard Cohen song that would have been released during Margot's childhood.
Margot's marital ennui, masked by this 'baby game' with Lou, is exacerbated by her attraction to their artist neighbour, Daniel (Kirby). Tellingly, the attraction is as much about communication as it is physical. Margot and Daniel have real conversations, and their first, intense sexual encounter is entirely verbal.
This, in contrast to an anniversary dinner where Lou prefers to sit in silence than engage in small talk. Arrested development or not, it is hard not to sympathise with Margot's dilemma of choosing between the unfulfilled present and the risky promise of a vastly changed future, even if we disagree with her way of resolving it.
Rather than relentlessly earnest, Take This Waltz is quirky in a sometimes heavy-handed manner, though its oddities are loaded with meaning. Early in the film we find Margot on assignment rewriting pamphlets for a medieval theme park; mundane work (she's not exactly a novelist) with a fantastical facade.
Soon after it is revealed that she has a debilitating (unlikely) fear of 'transfers'; of the anxious, uncertain time between when you disembark from one plane and board the next. This fear of transition can easily be extrapolated to reflect a fear of the space between the two relationships that make claims upon her.
Such loaded quirkiness is also employed to illuminate the male characters — or, more accurately, Margot's perceptions of them. Lou seems to be endlessly cooking innumerable permutations of chicken, as research for a themed cookbook that he is working on. He is thus linked inextricably to domesticity.
Daniel, on the other hand, apart from his romantic appeal as a struggling artist, works as a rickshaw puller. He is associated with the outside world and with movement. This attracts Margot just as Lou's domesticity repels her.
Margot's fear, not of change but of the uncertainty that lies between one state of existence and the next, is revealing. Such times may be fraught, but they are also times of growth. If Margot is in a state of emotional immaturity, then, it becomes apparent, the condition of her marriage is as much a symptom as a cause.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.