Margot (Michelle Williams) watches her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), cook in Take This Waltz.
If 2012 turns out a female performance better than Michelle Williams in Sarah Polley's new film, Take This Waltz, it'll be a pretty stellar year. As if we needed another reminder that Williams is one of her generation's most luminous—and talented—actresses, she goes and outshines even her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in last year's My Week with Marilyn.
But Williams isn't the only reason to see Take This Waltz. It's an absolute knockout of a romantic drama that deals with issues of commitment, compromise, and arrested development. Not a single note in the film rings false, and Polley writes her characters in such a way that we neither root for nor condemn their actions.
Far too often, infidelity in films is treated nonchalantly. Not here, where Williams' Margot seems to drive herself mad over the prospect of cheating on or leaving her sweet and loving husband, Lou (Seth Rogen). Her neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby), is the third leg of the triangle. The connection between he and Margot seems much deeper and more meaningful, but Lou is too nice, and she can't bring herself to hurt him like this. Yet she keeps tempting herself by spending time with Daniel, who's already made his feelings quite clear, and it's only a matter of time before Margot's indecision fades and she breaks someone's heart.
The film moves at a pretty slow pace, but it builds to something quite moving and extraordinarily authentic—especially when it comes to the relationship between Margot and Lou. They show affection in odd ways ("I want to skin you with a potato peeler" was a personal favorite line of mine), but it's the kind of stuff you'd expect from a married couple of five years. It conveys their happiness together, but also gets across the idea that intimacy isn't this couple's strong suit.
Margot and Daniel, on the other hand, exude more sexual tension during one drink than she and Lou presumably have over a stretch of five years. They meet while she's working away from home (she's a travel brochure writer, he's an artist and rickshaw driver, Lou's a cookbook writer), and after a flight and taxi ride home wrought with chemistry, she tells him she's married, and he stuns her when he disembarks the cab and walks to his house, which is conveniently located right across the street from hers. Such proximity is not healthy for Margot, who's cripplingly afraid of complication and disappointment (she remarks to Daniel on their flight that she's "afraid of being afraid"). But the further Lou moves from her romantically, the more appealing a life with the uber-passionate Daniel seems.
Polley also does an exceptional job conveying Margot's conflicted feelings visually. One of the film's real A+ moments occurs when Margot and Daniel ride The Scrambler together. It all occurs in one unbroken take and is set to, of all songs, "Video Killed the Radio Star". The ride itself is wonderful. Colorful lights are flashing, music is blasting, the wind is rushing through Margot's hair. But it all ends abruptly. The colors turn to gray. The music stops. And Margot is left with the realization that the man she just spent those three magical minutes with is not her husband.
The entire film is very colorful, and Luc Montpellier's cinematography (see also: the gorgeous Cairo Time) really sells the film—and Margot's relationship with Daniel—as a fever dream complete with more sunshine than most films set in Southern California (these folks live in Toronto).
But Williams is undeniably the best in show. She's this quivering puddle that's equal parts adorable and terrified. She wants to do something bad, and she's quite aware how bad it is, but the idea of eating chicken and not having sex with Lou for the rest of her life is debilitating. Williams gives herself over to the role in a number of ways. There are physical demands you won't—can't—miss. Emotionally, she transforms from this confident, talented star to a "manic pixie dream girl" that's tragically unfulfilled and can't figure out why. Everything about her performance is right. No matter what superlatives she earns for her work, they won't be enough. It's maybe the best work of her career, or at least since Brokeback Mountain.
Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby are also quite good. The former puts his usual comedic sensibilities aside for the most part, though we get glimpses of how someone like Margot might charmed into love with his Lou. Kirby, on the other hand, has an air of mystery about him and a laid-back confidence that clearly makes Margot weak in the knees.
The title "Take This Waltz" comes from a Leonard Cohen song that plays late in the film, post-climax. It's a very bittersweet moment that hammers home (maybe a little obviously) the film's message that unsettled people won't ever feel settled. You can toy with making a big change, but the pursuit of total satisfaction isn't one that will end well for people like Margot.
As far as total satisfaction goes, however, that's Take This Waltz in a nutshell. If you didn't recognize Sarah Polley as a major talent before, wake up. She's the real deal.