In September 2006, veteran Canadian actor Sarah Polley would première her directorial and writing début at the Toronto Film Festival. The film was Away From Her, an adaptation of the Alice Munro short story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, and it would be nearly universally acclaimed, receiving rave reviews that were shocked at how Polley had managed to create such a mature, insightful portrait of fidelity and forgiveness at such a young age.
Five years later, Polley would première her second film at the same festival. It was another portrait of fidelity and forgiveness (a theme that would continue into her third film, Stories We Tell, creating an accidental thematic trilogy), but Polley garnered criticism for almost taking a step back maturity-wise from her first feature, through her creation of a younger female character (Margot, played by Michelle Williams), whose conflict is being torn between her passionless but happy marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen) and her neighbor who she serendipitously meets, despite always living across the street from him.
I didn’t come to discover Take This Waltz until September 2013, where I would fall fast and hard for it, inexplicably bursting into tears about 40 minutes into it with this scene (which, dialogue-wise, is very NSFW, just a very fair warning).
I was struck by how visceral it felt, how spontaneous, and well written as a result, intimate but wildly uncomfortable, and alive it felt. The crack in Margo (Michelle Williams)’s voice when she says that line, “I want to know what you’d do to me”. The blush that creeps up her cheeks as Daniel (Luke Kirby) starts to talk. The tears in her voice, a second away from spilling over. Like the rest of the film, it was moving in a way that I hadn’t seen before – strange, messy, personal, and somewhat embarrassing, but exciting. It would only seemingly improve the more I thought about it. I couldn’t get it out of my head, something about Margot, what she said and did for weeks afterwards, every time I thought about it I nearly cried. She was funny but tragic, deceptively disguised as your cliché airy, awkward, but funny quirky girl; but really deeply melancholic, torn in half by herself and what’s ‘right’.
It’s easy to see why Margot tends to grate most. She’s somewhat of a precious character, the type that would be easily labeled as a MPDG (Manic Pixie Dream Girl) by some, a perfect movie world fantasy composed entirely of traits that society loves to deride in spite of itself. A writer living in a kitsch house in Toronto’s Little Portugal, she’s married to a writer of a chicken cookbook, orders milk on airplanes, dresses nearly exclusively in sneakers and t-shirts, and is “afraid of connections”. Combine this with Margot’s choice between her perfect husband and her artist neighbor who somehow supplements his income with being a rickshaw driver, and she becomes damn near interminable for most.
Her narrative trajectory is best summarized by a sequence that bookends the film, one that, while a flash forward to the point in time at the end of the film, is also representative of the entrance point as well. In her kitchen, she makes muffins. The room is small, homely looking, with orange light bathing the whole scene in a warm glow. While it’s somewhat idyllic, there’s an unease about the scene, a discontentment. You can tell it’s hot, the kind of heat drenched with humidity that results in a muggy, heavy feeling, where everything feels restrictive and claustrophobic. A man walks into the shot, blurred, not acknowledging Margot. Both the beginning and the end of Margot’s narrative, the feeling that defines her journey at both ends of the film is present here – the feeling of restlessness, of dissatisfaction.
Throughout the film, Margot constantly wrestles conflict with indeed her head and her heart, feeling an inexplicable pull to the mysterious Daniel, but guilty about feeling anything but love and loyalty for Lou. She changes emotions at a moments notice, switching from euphoria to guilt to being completely sure about what she feels to questioning it in the space of a single scene. In one of the best scenes of the film, she seamlessly oscillates through a spectrum of emotions as the amusement ride spins, laughter to tears in a second.
There’s much that Sarah Polley nails when it comes to Margot’s characterisation, but something she encompasses in such a perfect way is the crippling conflict. It’s that gnawing neediness, the desire to do something but uncertainly of what to do exactly when you feel that something is wrong, but you’re utterly clueless and absolutely torn about what to do about it. It’s easy to label her selfish and needy, which is certainly true; but I have a certain degree of unease in that, because it feels much more complicated. She’s incredibly vulnerable, and like all the characters in Take This Waltz, while she is deeply flawed, her honesty, her passion and her active pursuit of ways to fill the emptiness she feels (despite how wrong they are) is admirable. Despite throwing her in the middle of the two relationships, Polley still gives her agency, making her not a passive but an incredible active character. Neither Daniel or Lou are there to ‘save’ her, she does that herself.
But like the film itself, Margot also gets so close to the uncomfortable reality of life. She shows a side of ourselves that we maybe don’t like to admit exists, that we continue to push away for the sake of stability. We don’t like to admit that we’re flawed, fickle, self-indulgent emotional people, intensely wrapped up in ourselves and our passions, liable to burst into tears at any moment…but we are. We’re imperfect, we’re never sure exactly of what we want, and we change the course of our lives in the blink of an eye at the expense of others. We take wild chances, follow our hearts, and make the same decisions even though we know it will likely end with the same result. I revel in the ambiguity of Take This Waltz and its feelings towards Margot, neither here nor there about her actions. Should she pursue filling the dissatisfaction she feels, even though she knows that its going to end the same way? That’s something I’ll continue to think about for two more years.