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.