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Take This Waltz - review

Scenes from a marriage: Michelle Williams saves this film from tweeness, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Take This Waltz is the second film to be written and directed by the actor Sarah Polley. Like her first, Away From Her, it concerns the intangible, cancerous mysteries that can colonise a marriage’s immune system. The new picture has so much kookiness, so many overwritten lines and visual gimmicks, not to mention a winsome soundtrack that makes you feel you’re being drilled in the head with a candy cane, that it should be intolerable – but like the fitful, possibly manic-depressive Margot (Michelle Williams), there are two sides to the movie. Among the irritating and the obvious lies the original, even the revelatory. In this, it resembles nothing so much as a Canadian Mike Leigh film.

Margot lives in Toronto with Lou (Seth Rogen). They have been married for five years and haven’t yet lost their playfulness. She plucks at his mouth while he’s making a business call; they exchange violent sentiments in cutie-pie voices like the couple in Punch-Drunk Love. You say adorable, I say grounds for divorce. But mutual tweeness is not the problem. An air of frustration hangs in the air along with the aroma of cooking. Lou is writing a book of recipes that incorporate chicken in some way. The smell is nice, Margot insists, but the mess afterwards is disgusting. Plus, you know, it’s always chicken. A girl can pine for some red meat.

Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), who is quite the rack of ribs. He is seated next to Margot on a plane; they twinkle together in that young-and-pretty-in-an-indie-movie way. Returning to Toronto and heading to their respective homes, they discover with comical incredulity, beautifully sustained, that they live not only in the same street but directly opposite one another. The question hanging over the rest of the film is how long they will be able to resist temptation. The answer is: quite some time. Polley knows that consummation isn’t the issue for Margot; the die is already cast, the seed is sown. As for Lou, his goose is cooked, which at least makes a change from chicken.

The cinematographer Luc Montpellier has bathed the entire film in a hot, radiant glow that heightens Matthew Davies’s production design – the glossy walls, the ripe produce, the rows of bohemian stalls selling brightly patterned fabrics. This chimes with Margot’s desperately chirpy perspective, which she uses to fight her unhappiness. Bright-faced and golden-haired, she is accompanied by a personal shaft of sunlight; her wardrobe choices revolve around dressing as the Chelsea Flower Show. The miracle of Williams’s performance lies in her ability to emphasise the sharp edges beneath Margot’s Care Bear exterior, the selfishness and torment mixed up in her glee. Williams is sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amélie.

It’s touch-and-go at times. Any passengers overhearing Daniel’s and Margot’s first encounter could have bailed out at 30,000 feet without being accused of overreacting. “I don’t like being in between things,” Margot tells him. “I’m afraid of being afraid.” This isn’t dialogue: it’s potted characterisation. Late in the film, Margot’s sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), challenges her on the cause of her melancholia: “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” This is all obscurely insulting to the actors, who are good enough to convey such sentiments without self-help slogans, and the audience, which might prefer screenplays that aren’t mission statements in disguise.

Yet there is enough of the authentic or off-kilter to keep the film alive and fascinating. Polley makes some intriguingly odd moves, such as giving pride of place to the Buggles 1979 hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” while slightly skimming over the Leonard Cohen number that lends the film its title. (It’s used during a rather obvious time-lapse sequence that has nothing on Hugh Grant’s stroll through the passing seasons in Notting Hill.) And even if there were little else in the film of value, it would be possible to admire the sequence in which Lou, sitting on the porch at night serenaded by a chorus of chirruping crickets, gazes through the kitchen window at Margot – her lips mouthing the words to a song he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis