Named after Leonard Cohen’s exquisite homage to the poet Federico García Lorca, Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, the acclaimed actress’ second feature as writer/director, is in many regards the inverse of Away From Her, her debut, trading wintry places and care facilities for sweltering summer heat and urban cafés, somber earth tones for shimmering drunken fruit punch hues, a couple in their 60s and married for decades for one in their 20s and only just slipping into those first years of familiarity (and, perhaps, stagnation). Both films are equally distinguished by Polley’s preternatural insight into the nature of trust, lust, dependency, secrets, and the thorny complications of long-term love. It’s been noted that the events chronicled in Take This Waltz, which is basically a love triangle, mirror events in Polley’s own life. This may be the case, yet the result is hardly a mushy confession; lived experience only texturizes and at times actually lightens (unbearably) the film’s unnerving truthiness. For all the right reasons it is probably not a good date movie.
Which isn’t to say that Take This Waltz isn’t problematic in its execution. Michelle Williams’ Margot, a married copywriter drawn to another man, is captivating, a sponge. Her every hesitation brims with wildly varied urges; we never lose track of where she is emotionally. Yet her scenes with Luke Kirby, the artist and rickshaw driver she falls for, lack chemistry, their first exchanges feel especially forced, while those with Seth Rogen, so endearing and sympathetic as her husband, an author of cookbooks containing recipes for nothing but chicken (read: comfort food embodied!), are intermittently undone by Polley’s determination to impose a sense of well-developed intimacy. (Though there is something rather ingenious about the couple’s ritual of whispering sweet nothings to each other that sassily describe torture and murder.)
Still, I can’t emphasize this enough: no matter how many reservations or accusations of bum notes one can lob at Take This Waltz it is nonetheless decidedly adult, wordlessly articulate, sexy, sweet, brutal and very much alive—an extraordinary film about the vagaries of desire, which is to say, something extremely rare. The last act in particular, which is both the fulfillment of a promise and the exhaustion of a longing, is haunting and brilliant in its conclusions. (Or lack there of.) I admire this film far more than I do many others that have far fewer flaws. Also: it is a heartfelt, if geographically confused, love letter to Toronto.
I was late for my interview with Polley at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. My flight was delayed and my taxi stuck in late afternoon traffic, but Polley waited for me. I was flustered; she was gracious, relaxed and responsive: an ideal interviewee. We spoke only a short while yet I think we managed to cover a great deal.
JB: Did you have a lot of ideas after Away From Her? Was it difficult to decide which idea to run with?
Sarah Polley: There were several things I’d started. This was the one I was enjoying the most. It felt like the one I could learn most from as a filmmaker. It would allow me more freedom to explore with the camera and the actors than I’d had on Away From Her. A second film feels like an opportunity to do what you really want to do, as opposed to what you think you should do.
JB: Films about romance often focus on how the lovers are meant to be together. So they’re to some degree about destiny. But Take This Waltz is very much about desire. Desire is a central character, a foil, something greater than the individuals.
SP: I wanted to explore the theme of life having a gap in it. Of emptiness. Of the way we use desire to fill that gap. I wanted to envelop the audience in that feeling of the beginning of desire, when the world’s popping in Technicolor and everything seems new and brimming with possibility—the possibility of reinventing yourself. From there we can follow desire through its natural life cycle and see what happens.
JB: I found your exploration of those feelings very resonant, very real, but I also sensed a very deliberate use of artifice, the punched up colours, or the idea that the object of one’s desire, though found in another city, might live right across the street.
SP: I definitely wanted the world to feel believable but then at moments have this fairy tale quality. This extends to the depiction of Toronto. That’s Toronto in the movie, but it’s also a somewhat idealized Toronto. I romanticize the city. It doesn’t actually look the way I see it. I wanted it to be a little too vibrant, a little too colourful. I didn’t want to be shy about injecting moments with coincidence or magic, of having a dance happen in the middle of a very messy human story.
JB: At what point did the Leonard Cohen song come to you?
SP: Right at the beginning. I was listening to it so often. There’s something about its circular nature. I found it so beautiful and romantic and sad. I wanted the film to capture that same tone.
JB: It’s a song I adore. I almost find it hard to listen to. One of the things I love about it is that it feels particularly unresolved, partly because of the waltz time, partly because the lyrics whisk us through these baroque scenarios yet never seem to land anywhere.
SP: Exactly. It almost feels like it could go forever. The song kind of tangles itself up in the same way that I like to imagine the characters do with each other.
JB: I think of how both the song and the film end, with this idea that the waltz is “all that there is.” Being in motion, being between things. We leave Margot feeling like she’s still between things.
SP: Absolutely. Perhaps she’s a little more at ease with being between things, but that feeling of emptiness has followed her. And there’s something about the title: ‘Take This Waltz.’ It’s just this dance. It’s not forever. It’s going to change, to mutate. But you go with it anyway because those are some of the greatest moments in life, when you just go with somebody, surrender.
JB: I was also fascinated by your repeated use of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ Is it me, or does this very different song not allude to the film’s most devastating piece of subtext?
SP: Absolutely. To me that song addresses what the film is about completely. One thing replaces another, but it’s not necessarily better, and it too will be temporary.
JB: This sense of being caught between things works its way into several aspects of the film. Being a recovering alcoholic, like Sarah Silverman’s character, means that you’re sort of always between drinks. Margot and Lou’s home seems perpetually between renovations.
SP: Matthew Davies, the production designer, was responsible for a lot of that. He really made that house feel like something in progress. You could see the layers of different families who’d lived there. He also brought a lot of the heat to the film. He made those rooms feel sweaty. There’s always a sheen in the paint or a shiny wallpaper. Every material he put in that house exudes heat. But yes, our discomfort with feeling between things was something I wanted to film to embody. Everybody was playing with that, including Lea Carlson, our wardrobe designer. She would sometimes dress Margot like an adolescent, as though she’s still going through this in-between phase.
JB: One thing about being an artist that some people find hard to fathom is the fact that your whole career keeps you between things. Most of your time is spent between one project and the next. Is that something that gives you anxiety?
SP: Professionally, I love being between things. I don’t love it in the rest of my life. Being between things professionally means you’re always trying to make things happen, but during those gaps you don’t always have to be doing it, which is also great. I love making films, but I also love just thinking about making films. And I love sleeping through the night, which you’re generally not able to do when you’re making a film.
JB: Are you at all interested in directing yourself as an actor?
SP: I don’t think so. Not unless I get way better as a director and way better as an actor. I’m so amazed that anyone can do both things simultaneously. Maybe one day I’ll try it, though I worry it could be miserable. I enjoy directing and acting so much, but I feel like doing them at the same time would compromise both experiences.
JB: I ask because I’m every now and then struck by how certain actors wind up doing their best work when directing themselves. Off the top of my head, I think of, let’s say, Clint Eastwood or John Cassavetes as actors who might be best when directing themselves.
SP: Now that’s actually inspiring. I never considered that. As you said that I suddenly had this flash of what it might be like to do exactly what you want to do and not have to worry about someone else’s opinion. That could actually be really fun.
JB: Perhaps if it was a very low-stakes project with a small crew, something you could take a lot of time with.
SP: Ooh. I love that idea. It’s weird. That’s the first time that’s ever sounded attractive to me. The idea of feeling less inhibited, not trying to please anybody.
JB: Alright, then. Now I want to see Sarah Polley direct Sarah Polley.
SP: [Laughs] I’ll have to think about it.