Review: Michelle Williams is heartbreaking in sensational ‘Take This Waltz’

09.14.11 6 years ago 12 Comments

Joe's Daughter/Mongrel Media

Earlier today, I was at the press day for “50/50,” shooting video interviews with the cast, and one of the people working at the event was a local.  As we were talking about movies I’d seen at the fest, I mentioned Sarah Polley and “Take This Waltz,” and immediately, she got defensive, before I even offered an opinion on the film.  “Sarah Polley is one of our treasures,” she said, a good Canadian protecting one of her own.  Thing is, no one need to protect Polley, because she’s carving out one hell of a career, and there’s nothing to be defensive about.

We have very few women writing and directing personal work on a regular basis these days, and if you look at the percentages of women to men in those jobs, it’s truly upsetting.  I love all of my boy movies, certainly, and I know when a filmmaker is playing right to my interests or my worldview.  I don’t just go to the movies to have my perspective endlessly reinforced, though.  I want to be challenged.  I want to be knocked out of my comfort zone.  I want to hear a voice I haven’t heard before.  I want to understand the world through other people’s eyes.

“Take This Waltz” is absolutely the work of a strong film artist with a perspective and a voice that should be heard, and I think Sarah Polley is someone we need to encourage and support.  This is delicate, beautiful work, well-observed and powerful, and I walked out of the theater emotionally rocked by the movie.  It tells the story of Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen), a young married couple who are still defining their lives together.  Lou is working on a cookbook about chicken, and Margot is working various freelance writing jobs while waiting to find something to write about.  The way Polley shows the small moments of their relationship, the things that they share, the rituals that connect them, is very smart, very subtle.  Margot loves her husband, and she loves to play.  There is a sense that she needs someone who can meet her halfway, someone who needs the same constant affection that she does, and Lou is able to be that person for her.


There is nothing that can poison a marriage more than when priorities are different between two people.  A marriage is an agreement, a unity of purpose, and if both partners aren’t moving in the same direction, wanting the same things, it can crumble without anyone realizing it.  Margot finds herself constantly testing Lou, and not intentionally.  It’s just the way she’s wired, and she can’t even identify the things she feels like she’s missing until she meets a guy named Daniel (Luke Kirby)  while she’s on a working vacation.  It’s just a passing encounter, but then she runs into him again on the plane back to Toronto, and the chemistry between them is immediate and easy and, most importantly, utterly unlike what she’s got with Lou.  She’s intrigued, but at first, she professes that she’s married, and even when it turns out that this guy lives across the street from them, she refuses to accept that it’s any sort of sign or that there’s any significance to this strange attraction.

Lou’s extended family has a big presence in the film, and his sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) is a recovering alcoholic who serves as a sounding board for Margot for a while.  What Polley does so well that no male director would be able to do in quite the same way is externalize the inner lives of these women, and it’s a very intimate movie, start to finish.  The struggles they’re dealing with are never cranked up to melodrama, but instead stay small scale and personal.  Also, the way she shoots women, the details she chooses to focus on, there’s a whole different sensibility at work here.  I’m never more aware of “the male gaze” than when it’s absent, and a perfect example is a shower scene after a very funny sequence at a swim class.  There are all these women in the showers, and it’s very matter of fact.  If a guy was directing a movie with Sarah Silverman and Michelle Williams standing around naked, it wouldn’t be shot like this.  There’s something almost celebratory about the way Polley packs the frame with all these different ages and body types, and that extends to the way she shoots small acts of affection or the way people watch each other.  What she focuses on is not the same as what I would focus on, and being aware of that makes me aware that I am seeing the world through Margot’s eyes.

I find there’s no actress working today who is better at projecting her inner life than Michelle Williams.  I think she’s remarkable, and whether she’s playing joy or pain, curiosity or fear, it’s right there under the surface, and it’s crystal clear.  There are times where she still looks 17 years old, and other times where something in her eyes makes her look like she’s got a hundred years of life experience bouncing around in there.  She seems to have absorbed Polley’s script on a molecular level, and I don’t see anything of her prior performances here.  Rogen doesn’t exactly play against type, but there’s such a gentle quality to Lou that it feels like he’s growing up, like he’s become the best version of the man he could have been, and he never reaches for an easy laugh in the film.  It’s a mature, considered piece of work.  The same is true of Sarah Silverman, who drops the acerbic edge she’s known for to play this woman struggling against her own desires, a lovely mirror of what it is that Margot is going through.

While someone might make the surface comparison between this and “Blue Valentine” as both being films about marriages in crisis, this is totally different from the DNA up.  In this film, she genuinely loves Lou, and she knows how good a man he is, and she’s not looking to escape from him.  He’s kind, he’s gentle, and he finds small ways to show her each day how much she means to him.  It’s Margot who needs something else, something she can’t put a name on, and the way she keeps dancing closer and closer to this temptation that’s entered her life and the way she grapples with her heart versus her head is compellingly illustrated.  Daniel is a worthy adversary for her, someone who engages her in a way that Lou doesn’t, and as much as I normally hate to watch movies about infidelity because it’s so alien to my own sensibility, here I can see the struggle that Margot faces.  She’s not running from Lou at all.  Instead, she’s running towards something she can’t even define.

Some of the writing is on the nose, including the first scene between Margot and Daniel, but there’s so much in the film that is so strong that it doesn’t matter to me.  This movie burrowed deep under my skin, and the contributions from cinematographer Luc Montpellier and composer Jonathan Goldsmith and editor Christopher Donaldson are all impressive, supporting this singular vision.  I hope Polley makes another dozen films, and I hope she keeps this voice of hers sharp and supple.  That girl at the junket today was right, but it’s true for any fan of film, not just a Canadian.  Sarah Polley is, indeed, one of our treasures.

“Take This Waltz” does not yet have an US distributor.  Fix that.

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