“I’m afraid of connections at airports. Of being between things,” muses the antsy Margot (Michelle Williams) to the laidback Daniel (Luke Kirby), a man she’s just met during a (rather quirky) writing assignment expedition, as the two fly back home to Toronto. As you might have guessed, it’s not just her feelings about air travel that Margot is sharing here. And what you might also guess is that our heroine is soon to find herself - majorly - “between things”: drawn to Daniel (who turns out to live not only in the same neighbourhood that she does but also on the same street) but torn by her feelings of loyalty to Lou (Seth Rogen), the affable schlump of a spouse to whom she’s been hitched for five years.
The clunkiness of moments such as those outlined above - clunkiness which seems almost perversely assured of its own cleverness - scuppers Sarah Polley’s sophomore feature Take This Waltz early on. Polley made such a good job of Away From Her (2006), her debut film adapted from Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” that it’s painful to see her go as wrong as she does with her new movie. Away From Her had some bogus moments, but not so many as to distract from its strong central premise and touching portrait of a relationship undergoing (forced) renegotiation. Take This Waltz, on the other hand, is practically all bogus moments. Striving for spontaneity, scene after scene here ends up arch and artificial, almost eerily “off.” It’s a movie full of self-absorbed people indulging in affected, unbelievable yakking. Margot and Lou’s marital malaise is sketched in intensely irritating scenes of play-fighting and baby talk, while her growing intimacy with Daniel is outlined in a tortuous restaurant-set sex talk encounter, from which Nicholson Baker’s Vox has nothing to fear.
Despite all the synthetic chit-chat, Take This Waltz attempts to be physical, too. A sequence set at a swimming baths wrests heavy-handed laughs from the camp antics of a water fitness instructor - and a spot of pool peeing - before contrasting the lithe bodies of Margot and her chums with the ageing, sagging flesh of the other women at the class. That might work, were the scene not handily editorialised for us by the characters’ wittering about how “everything new turns old.”
Elsewhere, as in Away From Her, Polley once more displays her impeccable Canadian cultural credentials. Named for the Leonard Cohen (via Garcia Lorca) song which plays over a truly excruciating late montage sequence, the film’s soundtrack also boasts Feist covering Cohen’s “Closing Time” (rather as Away From Her signed off with kd lang covering Neil Young). And when Margot and Lou head out for their anniversary date movie, what should that movie be? Why, nothing less than Claude Jutra’s Québécois classic Mon oncle Antoine (1971), of course.
Since the two male leads aren’t quite adequate - Rogen’s big emotional scene is unhelpfully shot to look like a Dramatic-Acting-101 exercise and Kirby, saddled with almost all the worst lines, can make nothing of his cipher of a role - it’s left to Michelle Williams to carry the movie. One of the finest young actresses in America, she’s up to the job, even if you may wish that Polley hadn’t saddled Margot with quite so many irritating accoutrements, and so many pathetic weepy moments. Still, Williams comes through, especially in those scenes in which the interior drama of the protagonist’s dilemma is conveyed without words.
And, unaccountably, in its final fifteen minutes or so, Take This Waltz comes through, too, taking a swerve into truth that’s all the more startling for being so utterly unexpected. Here, at last, Polley drops the artificiality and the heavy veil of hipster-angst chic and offers a few graced scenes that feel heartfelt and tender, and that stir some very personal feelings. “Some things you do in life - they stick,” one character tells another, gently laying bare their inability to move on. The final scenes of Take This Waltz “stick” too, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that irked me so thoroughly throughout and then succeeded in moving me to tears at the end. (I reported this to a friend who told me that she’d had a similar experience last year at Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea.) It’s frustrating - yet in a strange way also heartening - that Take This Waltz becomes, so briefly and belatedly, everything you'd hoped that it might be.