Like Puppies in a Box
Early in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, before the divorce papers have been served, the husband sums up what he and his wife have together: “Security, order, contentment, loyalty,” he says. “We’re indecently fortunate.” One could say the same of the young married couple in Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley’s second turn at writing and directing a feature film. Lou (Seth Rogan) and Margot (Michelle Williams) have all those things—plus a mutual enjoyment of gross-out games and childish roughhousing.
Of course, such “indecently fortunate” relationships are bound to change. Like 2007’s Away from Her, Polley’s quietly stunning directorial debut, her new film examines the end of a marriage. But Polley isn’t interested in bitter ends. Her couples don’t bicker or scream. Rather, both films focus on how a person mourns the loss of the relationship. Her touch is lighter in Waltz, but she asks some of the same questions: How does someone begin to shift for herself again? And what does one partner owe the other?
In Waltz, Margot is terribly uncertain about these questions. She’s also uncertain of herself, as is suggested by the film’s opening image of her blurred profile. In this wordless initial scene, Margot slowly comes into focus, the camera contemplating every inch of her—from her tousled hair and pink cheeks to her bright blue toenails, from the way she slouches to the floor, almost mournfully, to watch a tin of muffins bake in the oven, to how she rises only to put her arms around the indistinct male figure who ambles in to the kitchen. We’ll see this scene again, much later. It manages to convey, and then recast, Margot’s chronic ambivalence about standing on her own.
It’s this ambivalence that Daniel (Luke Kirby) butts up against when the two first meet at a historical re-enactment of a colonial era public shaming. Margot, pulled from the crowd to whip a man in the stocks, cannot do it. Daniel goads her from the sidelines. Later, when the two meet again on a flight back to Toronto, the electricity between them is palpable.
So it seems a shame when, after sharing a playful cab ride from the airport, Margot at last flatly turns to Daniel and says: “I’m married.” To this point, we haven’t seen Margot’s husband. When we do first see her and Lou together, it after we’ve seen her dynamic with Daniel. We see the married couple from a vantage point just over their bed, as they are waking up, baby-talking their boasts of love for one another. “I love you so much I want to put your spleen through a meat grinder,” one says to the other. “Well I love you so much I’m going to mash your head in with a potato masher,” the other replies. They’re like puppies in a box, nipping and yelping at each other.
Lou is a bit like a grown-up version of all the sincerely sweet and schlubby characters Rogen has played before. It’s not like he’d forego a good fart joke, but he’s responsible and dependable now. In fact, Lou’s writing a chicken cookbook and has deadlines to meet. What Margot and Lou have together is never romantic or erotic, but it’s reliable and funny. And that sense of security is bolstered by close family on Lou’s side, which includes a sister played by Sarah Silverman, whose brightly acerbic performance is perfect here.
The conflict that develops, then, is not between Lou and Margot, but within her. As she acknowledges her increasing attraction to Daniel (who, as if in a dream, lives just across the street), she comes to see what’s missing between her and Lou. For instance, when she tells Daniel that she wants to know “what you do to me,” his monologue of a reply may be one of the most erotic sex scenes that never was. Conversely, at her five-year anniversary dinner with Lou, Margot realizes they have little to say to one another. Thus her story unfolds as she comes ever closer to her desire for Daniel, yet agonizes over the idea of hurting Lou.
The film shows most of her turmoil subtly, mirroring a gentleness we see in all three main characters. Williams especially shifts believably between grown-up and girlish (much as she did in 2010’s Blue Valentine). Here, though, the emphasis is on her childish qualities: she appears disheveled and silly or sullen at home, then waifish and wistful with Daniel. Appropriately, perhaps, Margot’s most revelatory moment takes place on an amusement park ride.
And the whole movie is a bit of a ride. One senses that Polley wanted to cram it with the messiness and range of life. Her film swings through scenes of great sweetness and silliness—and is even wildly funny at moments—while remaining equally attentive to small moments that turn on disappointment or irritation.
Polley’s knack for convincing dialogue and attention to detail carry us through the slowly building course of Margot’s disenchantment and desire. The film’s thoroughly enjoyable first 90 minutes helps us forgive the unnecessary anticlimactic last quarter. Forgive, but not dismiss. Polley drags the film past either one of its obvious stopping points in order to demonstrate what Margot still hasn’t learned. Where she ends up is where she needs to, but before that final, quite perfect scene, there are at least 30 minutes that should have been scooped out with the melon baller with which Lou affectionately tells Margot he’d like to gouge her eyes out.