“Sadly for Lou, Margot just isn’t a long-term kind of gal. The promise of what she could have is so much more tantalizing than what she has. Daniel represents a perpetual new day, seemingly existing only at dawn for much of the film.”
After watching Take This Waltz, my husband and I spent some time exploring the question that the film is likely to provoke among many couples: “Should she or shouldn’t she have?” With the implied “Would you or wouldn’t you?” hanging in the air, this conversation was energized as much by our seven-year-old marriage as it was informed by the actual content of the film. After all, a debate about the film’s moral position is the sort of intellectual and emotional dance that always seems to interject our relationship with the new energy that Take This Waltz’s central monogamous pair cannot find. However, our limited focus distracted me from a true appreciation of writer-director Sarah Polley’s artistry.
Take This Waltz is a meditation on restlessness — that of the main character, Margot (Michelle Williams), and, for me anyway, on the restlessness induced in many of us by a culture obsessed with “The New.” As Slate critic Dana Stevens has pointed out, much of the film’s initial pleasure lies in the unfolding of Margot’s decision whether or not to consummate an adulterous affair with her neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). And because that suspense truly is a pleasure, please do not read on if you prefer not to be robbed of it. In other words, SPOILER ALERT.
Margot does, indeed, consummate the affair. She does so 95 minutes into the film, in a marvelous and surreal montage of thrilling and novel sex, rendered by Polley with a 360-degree shot that circles round and round the couple. Much like the famous 360-degree shot that marks the consummation of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak’s relationship in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the 360-degree shot here encapsulates the film’s meaning. As in Vertigo, it is an index of the protagonist’s troubled psyche if not even a fantastical dream, as some have argued of Vertigo and some might argue of Take This Waltz. The latter, like the former, carries a title that points us to the centrality of this dizzying motion, which Polley further emphasizes by bringing in Leonard Cohen’s song “Take This Waltz” precisely at this point. As the camera circles, time passes swiftly, exhilaratingly, in the first stage of a new love until, inevitably, the camera stops, their relationship sediments, and they are left on the couch, watching TV (a mirror, it might seem, of the many couch-bound couples watching the film, which was given a pay-per-view release simultaneous with its theater release). Margot tries to fill this motionless moment by reverting to the baby talk that she had practiced with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen), an impulse that is rendered in the film as a pathetic and ultimately doomed attempt to inject new energy, like emotional Botox, into a relationship that should be allowed to age gracefully.
But Margot’s development is arrested, as Polley establishes with her references to milk, spanking, and children’s games, with a lullaby-inflected soundtrack and with lots of pointed dialogue. When Daniel, early on, asks her why she is so “restless . . . in a kind of permanent way,” Margot poetically compares her emotional life to that of an infant’s. Like a young child, she is unable to be still. She is, as Daniel notes, “jumpy.” Margot needs to move or rather, more accurately, to be moved. Polley emphasizes this with the film’s many conveyances: a plane, a taxi, Daniel’s rickshaw, a public bus, a boat and most especially, of course, “The Scrambler,” the carnival ride that mimics the movement of the waltz, of spins within spins. Or the wheelchair-cum-stroller: As Margot explains to Daniel in their (almost) first meeting, she insists on being pushed in a wheelchair in airport terminals because she is afraid of “connections,” a metaphor slightly less tortured than it seems at first. As Margot explains, what she fears is “being in-between things” and “trying to figure it out.” In other words, we will learn, Margot is unable to navigate the periods of inertia that are a part of most marriages.
It is her sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), who will clarify this metaphor. After Margot has left her brother and Geraldine herself has lapsed as an alcoholic, Geraldine tells her, “I think you’re a bigger idiot than I am. I think you really fucked up, Margot. In the big picture. Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.” As Polley’s preferred truth-teller, Geraldine had earlier warned Margot that adulterous thrill-seeking is ultimately unfulfilling. Having suspected Margot’s temptation to cheat, Geraldine advises her not to succumb: “New things get old just like the old things did.” (Made in a wonderful post-shower workout scene that should make Laura Mulvey smile, Geraldine’s point is confirmed by the contrast between young and old bodies.)
Clearly, at age 28, Margot is experiencing one of life’s gap periods, and Daniel represents an opportunity to fill it with something “shiny” and “new.” Margot and Lou have been married for five years. Despite the deep affection between them, they seem unable to inject their sexual relationship with any new life. When the aforementioned baby talk fails, Margot even teases about making a baby, a proposal Lou laughs away. Indeed, Lou seems the antithesis to Margot’s restless compulsion for The New, which explains his inability to fathom hers. At their anniversary dinner, he is content to sit in silence. When she tells him that this troubles her, he lovingly espouses the benefits of steady companionship over witty conversation. He is, after all, writing a cookbook devoted singularly to chicken recipes, the routine nature of which is analogized to married sex. Lou’s flawed assumption, and contentment, that the future will look much like the present is poignantly summed up by the daily prank that he plays on Margot, dumping a splash of cold water on her over the shower curtain, which she assumes is the result of a plumbing failure. In a bittersweet revelation as Margot is leaving him, he explains, “I thought: When we’re 80, I’ll tell Margot I’ve been doing this her whole life and it will make her laugh. It’s kind of a long-term joke.”
Sadly for Lou, Margot just isn’t a long-term kind of gal. The promise of what she could have is so much more tantalizing than what she has. Daniel represents a perpetual new day, seemingly existing only at dawn for much of the film. In fact, whereas Jimmy Stewart’s troubles in Vertigo arise out of a perverse relationship to the past, Margot’s restlessness is related to her perverse romanticization of the future, idealized, just out of reach. This is why Polley gives us the gorgeous scene in the swimming pool, Margot and Daniel twisting and somersaulting around each other, the eroticism — for Margot and the spectator — invoked by their almost touching. The spell is broken when Daniel touches Margot’s ankle, the forbidden future becoming the real present. This also explains why Margot brings Daniel to the Scrambler ride on the (pre-consummation) day they allow themselves to spend together. Their bodies thrown together, almost kissing, it is the thrill of the just-out-of-reach novel sensation that animates the sexual tension between them. This is also why Margot asks Daniel to describe what he would do to her sexually and why she finds his ensuing description so satisfying (a scene which should replace Meg Ryan’s diner scene in When Harry Met Sally as the “Best Fully Clothed Orgasm in a Public Location” in cinematic history). In fact, Margot is so turned on by the world of what-ifs that she proposes to Daniel that they postpone the physical realization of their lust for 30 years, meeting to kiss in 2040 at a lighthouse near the historical fort in Nova Scotia where they meet in the film’s opening moments (and where Polley announces the film’s themes — of marriage, adultery, the passage of time, and Margot’s immaturity — with a fairly heavy hand). But consummation is not delayed three decades. And when Daniel, in a short scene with Margot at the lighthouse, tells her he’s glad they didn’t wait, her agreement is not entirely convincing.
It is significant that the film only almost begins and ends in Nova Scotia, a narrative arc with a happy ending that would have been appropriate if Take This Waltz were the rom-com some viewers might have expected. Instead, Polley opens the film with a melancholy Margot waiting for muffins to bake, sitting on the floor, staring gloomily into the oven and then into the camera. An unidentified male leg strides by, offering the film’s mystery, which is then solved in the film’s penultimate scene: she chose Daniel. However, her story has not progressed. All Margot’s moving has been circular, spinning, bringing her back to the same spot. Given Polley’s attention to detail, the fact that the male leg wore shorts in the first scene but pants in the penultimate scene cannot be a continuity error. Instead, it might suggest this whole thing, or some parts of it, has been a dream. Or perhaps it further insists that Margot’s choice — one man versus the other — was irrelevant to her existential state. “Video killed the radio star,” as the soundtrack intones, but digital will kill video, and so on. In any case, Polley doesn’t leave us dwelling on Margot’s choice (a fine point temporarily ignored by my husband and me). Instead, she gives us one last scene to contemplate the childlike character of Margot: alone and pouty on the carnival ride, until the spinning begins and a smile is involuntarily wrought by a short-lived, centripetal thrill.