PLEASE NOTE: THERE IS A MUCH MORE DETAILED REVIEW TO COINCIDE WITH THE BLU-RAY/DVD RELEASE OF "TAKE THIS WALTZ" WHICH YOU MIGHT WISH TO READ BY CLICKING HERE.
Take This Waltz (2011) dir. Sarah Polley
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman, Jennifer Podemski, Damien Atkins
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Danny fell round and round and round and round…like a whirligig, he did." - John Huston's film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.The Scrambler is one of the most enduring rides ever invented. Along with the Ferris Wheel and Merry-Go-Round, it maintains its solid reputation as a tent pole fixture in any self-respecting amusement park and travelling carnival. Whilst traversing the Stations of the (Midway) Cross until reaching the Golgotha-like pinnacle of pre-Lent funfairs, 'tis The Scrambler which remains front and centre of its staid companions on the Mount to Ascension (and indeed, the immortality of the Resurrection).
And why, Father, you ask?
My child, 'tis simple: The Scrambler scares the living bejesus out of you, BUT with an odd sense of complacency - comfort, if you will.
"Begone, Jesus!" The Scrambler intones with Father Merrin-like intensity. "Allow danger and thrill-seeking into your soul and know that unlike the unrepentant gaylords, the Ferris Wheel and Merry-Go-Round, or worse, the rabble along the Midway sidelines with their vomit-inducing touch-the-heavens vantage points, you will be firmly planted on terra firma, but instead you will feel like you are well beyond the Pearly Gates - jettisoned through the Tunnel of Light as that most Holy and joyous throbbing of The Buggles cascades you into deep space for a multi-orgasmic encounter with the Star Child."
The Scrambler, located in a pitch black room, is accompanied by ear-splitting music (mostly late 70s and early 80s) and a lightshow that includes strobes. You and your companion (preferably a loved one or somebody you want to boink) sit in a carriage connected to trestles that spin you around while the Babel-like phallus, the main driver in the centre, spins in the opposite direction.
The Scrambler is unique amongst carnival amusements. Unlike most of the ride's copycat versions it is not rotated hydraulically, but is in fact operated with cogs that allow for the constant (and potentially whiplash-inducing) kick-spins that are exclusive to the Scrambler.
The ride delivers throat-gulping thrills and utter joy that in turn inspire mad adrenalin rushes, occasional butterfly fluttering in the tummy and a resolute sense of conquer-the-world freedom. It yanks you this way and that way, it spins you insanely and furiously, it tosses you from side to side like a rag doll and depending upon which side you choose to sit on, it forces one lucky person into the arms of another. When it's over, you're giddy, breathless, dizzy and weak-kneed.
Kind of like love.
Kind of like Sarah Polley's extraordinary second feature film Take This Waltz.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *For me, the Scrambler operates as a tremendously moving and powerful central metaphoric symbol in Polley's great movie - a movie so great that it feels like it's going to have a very long shelf-life as opposed to the ambitious, but flawed sophomore feature many critics - or rather, reviewers - seem to be knobbishly kvetching about. I daresay this might be the one Polley's remembered for in the distant future - more, I suspect, than the finely directed, though fairly straight forward, Oscar-nominated Alzheimer's drama Away From Her.
In its exploration of love and life, Take This Waltz is brash, bold and uncompromisingly gutsy. Painting an indelible portrait of young love, the movie's a galaxy or two away in the originality sweepstakes from the typical studio and indie romantic comedies and dramedies. Most of those offer pat three-act structures with minor league conflict and tied-in-a-bow resolutions.
Polley serves up a dish best savoured over several courses (or in this case, viewings). She delivers high wattage humour, sizzling romance and ever-so cool styling, but it's not prepared or flavoured to be sucked back like a Big Mac.
This is one for the ages.
Margot (Michelle Williams), a late-20-something information writer for Parks Canada has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years. Hubby's a master chef writing a cookbook devoted solely to preparing chicken in new and interesting ways. On the surface they seem like the happiest couple in the world - cooing, giggling, playing practical jokes and expressing their love by endlessly conjuring up sentiments like "I love you so much I want to . . . [insert torture here]." Implements included in these perverse sweet nothings include a myriad of household items - my personal favourite being melon ballers to scoop out the eyes.
On a strictly personal note, I've been heard to emit my own variation: "I love you so much I want to grab your soft, tender cheeks, pinch them until they're ripened black and blue, then rip them off with my bare hands, stuff them into my mouth and gobble them up like a greedy pig at the trough."
But, I digress.
There is, in this seemingly perfect marriage, a spanner in the works.
Margot has a "meet cute" with a hunky, dreamy Daniel (Luke Kirby) whilst on the job. He's got his eagle eye on her fetching looks and oh-so-sexy/cute serious demeanour while she takes copious notes to write copy for an official Parks Canada publication.
Cupid's arrow finds it aim during a tour of the Louisbourg Fortress in Nova Scotia. This is one of those annoying historical parks that dot the Canadian landscape where two-bit costumed actors prance around recreating what life used to be like behind the walls of the respective sites of yore.
More often than not, these historical recreations focus upon Old World British and French colonial rule which entrenched themselves insidiously within Canadian society. Only until Trudeau's multicultural policies during his reign as Prime Minister did the mosaic that truly comprised Canada since the early 20th Century start to flourish.
These monuments continue to exist as a perverse tribute to the genocide of Aboriginal peoples, suppression of all those not of lily white Brit stock, the evil spread of French Catholicism and British Presbyterianism (plus all the whack-job Calvinism and Protestantism) and lest we forget, the subjugation of a kaleidoscope of cultures who served as the working class backbone to the building of the country from the late 19th and throughout the 20th Century.
Selecting Louisbourg as the the setting of the seeds that drive much of the narrative is a nice touch. Nova Scotia not only offers a picturesque background, but on a deeper level, the Fortress itself is rife with so many elements that inform the tale. Louisbourg was a sturdy French fortress designed as a port of call, a new colonial society and to repel any attacks by the English. So strong was the structure and the forces within that the Brits were sent packing with their tails twixt their legs after two major attacks. Eventually, though, the Empire succeeded in bringing Louisbourg down - its major flaw being that it was designed to repel sea attacks, but land attacks made it especially vulnerable. Once the Brits took control of it for good, it was systematically decimated.
The Louisbourg Fortress that now exists is a fake - a relatively modern recreation erected in the 1960s. Maybe the only thing real in the Fort on the day Margot visits is her growing dissatisfaction with married life and Daniel's genuine attraction to her. The perfect little fortress of domestic bliss is not, it seems, all that ideal. Like the original Louisbourg it's vulnerable to attack and like the new Louisbourg, it's a sham. And finally, much like the Cape Breton Isle location of Louisbourg, Margot is, deep down, an island unto herself.
The movie, in fact, opens on a series of shots of Margot - the camera focusing almost fetishistically upon her seeming otherworldliness, an ethereal quality that initially masks how much she's rooted upon good, old terra firma (but doesn't know it yet). We sense it, though, right from the beginning through images of Margot's blue-toenailed feet (foot fetishists, please take note) padding back and forth on the kitchen floor as she prepares some baked goods - her strong, though delicate legs bending and crouching in front of the oven, the manner in which she strides along the streets with purpose. She's determined, searching for something, but has yet to discover what that something is so she can actually find it.
What Margot witnesses in Louisbourg is loaded with portent. At first, she sees a wedding ceremony. Is it real? Or a re-enactment? She joins a party of tourists and follows along. In no time, she's with the rest of the vacationers, assembled in the "town" square. A man is dragged against his will to a post to receive punishment for adultery. He is to be flogged.
One of the things I hate about these ludicrous historical parks is precisely what happens to Margot.
Margot is dragged from her comfort zone, handed a whip and asked to administer the flogging. She's clearly not into it, but hunky Daniel chides her submissive flicks of the whip and goads her to a point where she cuts loose on the "adulterer" like a first-class dominatrix.
We next see Margot at the airport in a wheelchair. Personally, my own ruse to get on planes ahead of assholes in business class is to hobble to the front when the announcement is made for parents with small children and any others who might require assistance boarding the plane. Margot, it seems, has a more flamboyant approach.
Here Polley throws us for a bigger loop. We go from "meet cute" to wild coincidence. Margot's not only on the same plane as Daniel (who knows she isn't a cripple), but is seated next to him.
Disembarking at the Toronto Airport, they decide to share a cab downtown. He gets off on the same street. Lo and behold - after a plane ride and cab ride infused with furtive glances, mega-flirtation and ultra-rom-com banter - it seems that hunky Daniel, an artist who works as a ricksha driver to pay for his cultural endeavours (and keep himself nice and buff for the ladies) lives across the street from Margot and Lou. Uh-oh!!! (During the course of the film, we see Daniel in not one, but TWO very cool pads - both perfect save for a lack of central air.)
I loved this entire sequence. It toys with the conventions we expect from romantic comedies by loading on the most ludicrous coincidence. In fact, it goes well beyond convention. It's an insanely, wildly and completely over-the-top concurrence of fate - one in which a boneheaded development or studio executive might argue is not "realistic", but who will just as likely pooh-pooh something for being too "realistic" - as if any of those clowns actually know what they're saying beyond the need to say something.
As nutty as this demonstration of pure chance might seem, Polley is actually exploiting the stuff of life in extremis - so much so, that in less capable hands, an audience would have had one hell of a time swallowing any of it.
We do, though. Polley takes a risk here and it pays off in spades.
It helps that Williams and Perry have great chemistry and the dialogue alternates seamlessly from snappy Hecht and MacArthur banter to Wes Anderson-like whimsy to gushingly entertaining and sexy flirtation that when put all together is pure Polley. And most importantly, the proceedings are so deliciously offbeat that dramatically we're as prepared to accept the coincidence as we do when it occurs to us in life itself. (Sometimes we're happy about it while at others we're not, but we accept it just the same.)
The movie is one hell of a great ride. There's an extremely solid structure buried beneath the nuttiness of many of the film's set pieces, allowing Polley to yank us this way and that way - not unlike an amusement park ride, but most importantly, fused to the very stuff that all of us, one way or another, have experienced.
It's classic filmmaking with pleasing, fresh variations and it hooks us - line and sinker included.
This new spark of romance in Margot's life, while pleasing to her and the audience, is equally filled with tension and frustration. She and Lou are in love. Most of all, Lou is a really nice guy - so nice that neither Margot, nor the viewer would ever want to see him hurt.
Lou has a wonderful, loud, funny extended family of the ethnic persuasion - full of the life not normally associated with the white-bread ethnicity that Margot appears to be spawned from. A wonderful scene has his family visiting their impossibly groovy semi-detached brick heritage home in Toronto's West End - perfect, it seems, in every respect, save for a lack of central air conditioning.
Lou's mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and God knows who else are crammed into Lou and Margot's livingroom - eating, drinking and all talking at the same time. Not unlike my family. Or maybe even yours. It's as if there was a competition to see who is able to speak the loudest.
These are people who crackle with the stuff of life. We get no sense of where Margot comes from save for the Happy Wasp Homemaker comportment adorning her as she serves platters of Lou's chicken. At one point Lou's pathologically loquacious Mother looks up at Margot who's juggling a cheerful, bouncing, curly-headed niece in one arm and bending over with a tray of Lou's comestibles in the other.
"I love being served!" caws Lou's Mom.
Margot with a wide, toothy, somewhat quizzical grin offers:
"Well, I . . . love seeing you . . . sit down."
It's a strange, but familiar moment. And incredibly funny. It feels a bit like the WASP out of white bread water with the garrulous "ethnics", but the sequence is written and played so indelibly and truthfully that there's no way one would equate moments like these as the TV-styled sit-com approach in movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Mambo Italiano.
It's familiar because it's real and a genuine reflection of one of many aspects of indigenous Canadian society. The "ethnics" of Take This Waltz are, in a contemporary context, not even what might normally be associated with what it means to be "ethnic". They're Canadians of Jewish heritage, to be sure, and, no doubt (this writer opined stereotypically, but with, perchance, a grain of truth buried beneath his own perceptions) one hell of a lot livelier than a meandering herd of WASPS downing highballs.
Lou's family seems so wonderful I wanted to move in with them. Margot clearly loves them too, but there seems, in this moment between the female in-laws something quite subtle and delicate that suggests all might not be right - almost a tiny suggestion that Lou's Mom might not be entirely sold on her son's choice for a wife and/or that Margot sees something of Lou in his Mother that doesn't quite rest easy with her. Granted, Lou's done the cooking prior to the family fête, but during the festivities he's the one seated comfortably and kibitzing with his family while Margot alternates between spending most of her time doting on her niece and dashing about like June Cleaver.
One of the many things I love about Polley's writing and Michelle Williams' performance is that everything is stacked on Lou's side. We get to know him through and through - especially in the context of lavishing so much time on his family. Margot, however, is a mystery - the best kind. What we get to know is from the tiny bits Polley parcels out about her, but most of all through a sort of WYSIWYG approach to the character in terms of the action she experiences and initiates.
At times, Margot seems locked in the innocence of days gone by - at times childlike, at others adolescent and often 10-years younger than she actually is. This is clearly a trait that Lou is enamoured with - he's truly, madly, deeply in love with her because of it. There is, however, little to show that he also sees a maturity, an old soul quality and definite intelligence buried beneath her innocent and honest facade. Worse yet, Lou seems oblivious to the fact that he's married to a mega-wattage babe who's dying to explode from her submissive comportment and ravish him with total abandon.
So many movies, whether they're stupidly entertaining like the American Pie variety or imbued with the grace and intelligence of Diner (and its clear inspiration I Vitelloni), audiences and critics seem quite happy to accept male characters not acting (at least on the surface) their age. Here, though, we get the female perspective on this exclusively male trait in popular film entertainment. It's not only refreshing, but provides a myriad of hurdles for Polley as both writer and director and star Michelle Williams to overcome and, hence, explore quite winningly in wholly cinematic ways.
The movie is a cornucopia of wonderful set pieces - all of which are joyful, hilarious, sexy and heartbreaking (sometimes all at once). These, however, are not splotched onto the movie willy-nilly, but all come naturally from the narrative and/or character.
Margot has two very close female friends. One of them we meet at the family gathering noted above. Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) is Lou's sister (and Mom to the niece Margot is obsessed with). Geraldine's an alcoholic in the midst of recovery. This is a role made in Heaven for Silverman - the character is perfectly rendered on the page to allow so many natural opportunities for Silverman to deliver several meters of kishka-links worth of fall-on-the-floor-laughing one-liners. When Margot comments on how well the post-rehab Geraldine looks, the response made me double over each time she emits: "I know. When I look in the mirror I want to fuck myself." Silverman is not only funny, but her performance is utterly exquisite. Even when she's cracking jokes and rendering all that's wonderful about the character of Geraldine, she uses her eyes so expressively and subtly to evoke the constant pain of her disease. Alcoholics are not easy to play with honesty and a sense of humanity and Silverman is up to the task and then some.
The other character is Karen (Jennifer Podemski), the friend who accompanies Margot and Geraldine to an aquafit class. If Geraldine is Margot's whack-job pal, Karen seems to be the fun, though rock-solid type. Podemski is so winning in this smaller role, I kept wanting more of the character to appear. What we get is probably just fine since more might have upset the balance of the picture. That said, Podemski is one of the most charismatic actresses in Canada - the camera loves her - and while I'm always happy to see her onscreen, a part of me wishes she was in front of the camera more - not just here, but across the board. (Canadians in the movie business are always kvetching about the lack of a star system in English Canada. Well, stop kvetching and get Podemski in front of the camera more - she's funny, versatile and has, since she first caught my eye in Bruce McDonald's Dance Me Outside, a top-drawer screen presence. The rapport between Margot, Geraldine and Karen is pitch perfect.
The set piece involving all three female characters at the aquafit class is one of several sequences that demonstrates Polley's gifts as a director. It's funny as hell and features a poignant followup in the shower room. And let it be said right now that Damien Atkins as the crazed aquafit instructor gives the entire cast a run for its money on the laughs-per-second meter. This guy is supremely talented and had me (and the three audiences I saw it with) in stitches. He's so good and the character so rife with potential that someone in Canada needs to develop a series of franchise pictures around Atkins as The Aquafit Instructor - not a stupid TV series, but a bonafide feature franchise. I wonder if any Canadian producers have the good sense to take this suggestion and run with it?
A few of Polley's set pieces involve the smoulderingly playful and sexy Luke Kirby as Daniel, the rickshaw-driving object of Margot's potential toe-dip into adultery. Kirby has one outstanding scene where he tells Margot what he'd like to "do" to her and he's so good, I dare any woman not to get out-of-control wet and, for that matter, any fellas out there not to get a rock-hard erection. Though the scene doesn't have the overt public qualities of the "orgasm" scene in When Harry Met Sally, it has a similar effect.
Another set piece involving Kirby is when Margot takes Daniel to Toronto's Centreville Amusement Park on the Toronto Islands - insisting they ride the aforementioned Scrambler. As the couple is tossed to and fro and into each other's arms - Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier (whose work in the film overall is masterful) create a light and colour-dappled chiaroscuro blended with an almost interstellar light speed movement and all accompanied to an ear-splitting recording of the Buggles's "Video Killed The Radio Star". This happy, free-spirited and decidedly romantic sequence lifts both the couple onscreen and the audience to the Heavens until, much like the experience of riding The Scrambler, the ride stops short before the music ends.
Kirby also commands the screen during his scenes with Seth Rogen. Both actors are great here - when they first meet, during a ricksha ride through Toronto and finally at a house party Lou is throwing in honour of Geraldine's sobriety. Kirby conveys a strangely effective blend of admiration (in other circumstances, we feel he and Lou could actually be friends), guilt, jealousy and a take-no-prisoners attitude of romantic rivalry.
Rogen, not surprisingly, is terrific. In addition to his exquisite performance in the criminally overlooked 50/50, Rogen's clearly one of our great actors and his performance as Daniel is multi-layered and heartbreakingly touching (especially in a brave series of direct-to-the-camera monologues). He also handles the dual nature of the character superbly. Yes, Daniel is a great guy, but we see him making a couple of really stupid moves that suggest otherwise. Not that he's evil, mind you - just human, like all of us.
Humanity, is of course, the thing that pulses throughout Polley's film and she etches several central figures who share noteworthy characteristics that one sees at play in the best works by such towering humanist directors like Jean Renoir, John Sayles, Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda and Yasujirō Ozu (whilst adding dollops of perverse humour that are vaguely Buñuelian, occasionally charged with 30s and 40s Sturges-like snap-crackle-and-pop and the wry observational gifts Woody Allen is endowed with).
Her characters are neither saints nor sinners - they are all human - imbued with a myriad of dichotomous characteristics and feelings. Lou is a great guy - on the surface, nobody in their right mind would want to hurt him, but he is selfishly self-absorbed and oddly asexual. Daniel is sexy, charming and romantic as all get out, but he's also creepily predatory.
She's childish, skittish, selfish, needy and borderline unlikeable. But, she is unique - her seeming innocence and naive qualities are infectious, she radiates (occasionally) an inner resolve - especially with respect to her quest which, I think, has less to do with the outer layer of Lou vs. Daniel, but more to do with grounding herself in who she is and not living in the shadows of others.
In Take This Waltz, a film destined for eventual masterpiece status (I'll put money on it), Margot is like so many of us. She wants to hop aboard The Scrambler of life and experience the freedom and joy of inner abandon. What she wants more than anything is to climb aboard the ride herself, fingers crossed that she'll be able to hear "Video Killed The Radio Star" in its entirety.
Like the character of Danny Dravot in John Huston's film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Would Would Be King, Margot's fate will be determined by a dive into an abyss, spinning round like a whirligig, enveloped by the peace, terror and joy this will bring.
And she will make this choice.
"Take This Waltz" is now playing theatrically via Mongrel Media."