Margot and Lou, the married couple at the center of Take This Waltz, have a game they regularly play in which they try to one-up each other by making violent declarations of affection. One example? “I love you so much I want to gouge out your eyes with a melon baller.”
If you find this cute, you’ll probably enjoy Take This Waltz. If you find it odd and annoying, you likely won’t. An ambitious attempt to explore marital infidelity in its entirety – the temptation, the indulging, the brutal aftermath – the film is indeed a dance, in which one partner is artifice and the other is authenticity. The movie has many true sentiments, but few true characters on which to hang them.
Writer-director Sarah Polley, following up her impressive debut Away From Her, focuses here on Margot (Michelle Williams), a young writer drifting through a seemingly content marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook author. When she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), her ambivalent feelings about her place in life begin to shift in ways that are on occasion elegantly captured, but more often awkwardly manufactured.
Take, for instance, Margot and Daniel’s first meeting, while she is on an out-of-town work assignment. After running into each other at a living-history museum – where a villager is being flogged for adultery – they happen to be seated next to each other on the plane home. This leads to a shared cab ride, as they discover that they actually live on the same street.
There is something off about these characters right from the start, as they tease and argue like old flames rather than new acquaintances. During that cab ride, they spend time blowing a paper clip tied to string so that it drifts back and forth between them. It’s another cutesy form of intimacy, one born of comfortable experience and unlikely to be shared between two strangers.
This sort of childish playfulness plagues much of the movie, whether it’s Lou’s violence-laced sweet nothings or Margot’s giggly silliness (at one point while Lou is on the phone with someone else, she insists on sticking her fingers in his mouth for minutes on end). After being called a dated playground name by Margot at one point, Daniel asks her the question I’d been wondering about the whole film: “What are you, like 12-years-old and in 1982?”
But is it justifiable to condemn a movie simply because its characters annoy you? That’s what I struggled with throughout Take This Waltz. I’d finally argue yes. It isn’t only that I’d gouge my own eyes out with a melon baller if I was stuck in a room with these characters, but that their behavior is so fabricated it undermines the very truths the movie is trying to evoke. Lou, Margot and Daniel – they each get in the way of their own story.
To be fair to Polley, the truthful bits are significant. An early argument between Lou and Margot, in which they nitpick about each other’s kissing technique, will speak to anyone who’s been married for more than a year. Polley’s repeated use of a cheesy carnival ride to echo Margot’s state of mind is an inspired example of communicating through music and movement. And a nude shower scene at the community pool, in which Margot and her friends get a few words of wisdom from the older women in their water aerobics class, has the sort of truth most other filmmakers wouldn’t even consider putting before a camera.
And so Polley is still a talent to watch. Perhaps she simply needs more time to hone her own written material (Away From Her was drawn from a powerful Alice Munro short story). Perhaps I need to learn to appreciate prankish pixies like Margot. Whatever the case, Take This Waltz left me more than mixed; this has been the most bedeviling movie of the year.