September 11, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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In just her second feature film as a director (her first was 2006’s Oscar-nominated Away From Her), Sarah Polley demonstrates that she’s already a filmmaker with rare grace and sensuality in TAKE THIS WALTZ, which premiered tonight at the Toronto Film Festival.  Blessed with yet another superb lead performance by Michelle Williams, Polley’s film has the kind of sensitivity and artistry that gives film festivals a good name.

The story (which unlike Away With Her is a Polley original) is simple:  Margot (Williams), married for 5 years to Lou (Seth Rogen, in a subtle performance that doesn’t have a trace of his usual screen persona), is feeling twinges of unfulfillment.  Although her marriage is comfortable, there’s something not-quite-adult about it–they’re a couple that does schtick instead of talking about their increasing issues.  Margot also dreams of writing seriously, but for now she merely composes guide pamphlets for tourist attractions. She meets a stranger on one of her business trips, Daniel (Luke Kirby), and indulges in some flirtation–which becomes more serious when she finds out Daniel lives right across the street, and she’ll have contact with him almost every day.  Soon she’s entertaining serious thoughts of a extramarital romance, but she’s not quite sure she’s ready to give up her settled life.
This is the stuff of a million novels and TV-movies, but Polley and Williams give every sequence the specificity of reality, and Polley pushes this to a sensual hyperreality with cinematographer Luc Montpelier (apart from working with Polley on Away From Her, he shot the beautiful Cairo Time); the colors pop off the screen, emphasizing the passions these characters are feeling and repressing.  Polley also uses music marvelously (the film’s title is from a Leonard Cohen song, heard during a particularly memorable montage), and Matthew Davies’ production design makes each routine location seem distinctive.
The cast is extraordinary.  Williams, at this point, is as entitled as anyone to be considered the leading actress of her generation, and this joins Blue Valentine and Wendy and Lucy as one of her best (and unlike in those films, here Williams gets to be funny as well as heartbreaking).  Even performing the simplest act or delivering the most ordinary dialogue, a complex of emotions seems to burn through her skin.  Kirby, mostly a TV actor until now, has powerful magnetism with her.  Joining Rogen (who, with a strong performance as well in the upcoming 50/50, is having a very good TIFF) as a piece of daring casting by Polley that works out beautifully, Sarah Silverman gives a completely convincing performance as Rogen’s alcoholic sister.
Take This Waltz has its flaws.  I wish Polley had resisted making Daniel a sensitive artist who picturesquely makes his living as a rickshaw operator; the first part is hackneyed in a way the movie otherwise avoids, and the second unnecessarily calls attention to itself as a detail.  More seriously, after a pitch-perfect 90 minutes of intensified naturalism, the last section of the film goes in another direction that has lovely moments, but feels attenuated overall.  For the most part, though, the film is a superb second chapter in what is becoming an exciting directoral career.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."