Anyone that’s ended a long-term relationship understands the stages of a break-up. First, there’s the epiphany: “I don’t think I want to be with this person anymore.” That feeling typically snowballs. There’s a few days, weeks, or even months in which you plan your escape. You become cold and distant to your significant other, you confide in your friends that you are planning a break-up, and you build your case: You compile a mental check-list of all the reasons you want to leave your significant other, and you marshal evidence based on his or her behavior to justify your decision. Once you’ve designed your course of action, you wait for an opening. In my experience, that typically means acting out-of-character until your significant other pulls it out of you, forces a conversation he or she probably already realizes is coming but has been trying to ignore in the hopes that he or she can push off the inevitable as long as possible.
After days, weeks, or months of waiting and uncertainty, the actual break-up typically comes as a relief, right up until the reality of what it means sets in. You spend so long demonizing your partner and looking beyond the end of the relationship and the supposed happiness and freedom that it will bring that you often forget about everything you once loved about the person you are leaving, what it means never to be with him or her again, and how sad you are to lose the connection you have with his or her friends and family. It’s not until then that you begin to envision your life without your long-term partner, without the love and support, without the running jokes in your relationship, the comfort, the familiarity, and the shared history. In the midst of that break-up conversation, that realization can feel devastating. It’s why so many break-up attempts are unsuccessful, because during that moment of doubt, it feels like such a relief to call it off, have great make-up sex, and redouble your efforts to make the relationship work (it never does).
That moment of devastation, the feelings of self-doubt, and the realization that you’ve made a horrible decision to end a relationship is where Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz lives. It’s an entire move designed to recreate that feeling, and while it takes a while to deliver the knock-out punch, when it lands, the blow feels catastrophic.
Written and directed by Polley, the film follows Margot (Michelle Williams), who is in a happy-enough marriage to Lou (Seth Rogen), although the fact that they both work from home (she’s a wannabe writer and he writes cook books) removes all mystery from their relationship. Their marriage is strong enough that, had another man never come along to provide temptation, Margot likely never would’ve recognized the cracks. She never would’ve made a big deal out of the little things like the fact that Lou occasionally takes her for granted, is sometimes easily annoyed, and like most men, can occasionally be an insensitive prick. Nothing, certainly, to end a marriage over.
Until Daniel (Luke Kirby), a rickshaw driver, enters her life. They have a meet cute in another city, end up next to each other on a plane ride home, and then find out that they are neighbors. The sexual chemistry is instant and obvious, and it’s immediately evident that if Margot indulges in a friendship or even so much as flirts with him, it will only be a matter of time before they end up in bed together. The allure of newness can be overpowering enough to pull you out of a content marriage, even if you realize that — once the newness wears off — you’ll basically end up in the same position you’re in now, only with a new person.
Though it meanders, taking its sweet time to fully capture Margot’s relationship with Lou, and then Daniel, Take This Waltz is a powerfully evocative film. I’d be hard-pressed to call it entertaining or even funny (though, there are small doses of strange humor built around Margot and Lou’s affectionate insults), but Take This Waltz is a brilliant mood film. The performances from Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby are, as you’d expect, outstanding, and even Rogen manages to pull off a strong dramatic performance (until he’s called upon to cry, which is where he comes up short). There is a narrative, but the film doesn’t set out to tell a story as much as it attempts to conjure certain feelings, to make you ache, and most likely, remind you of your own history of failed relationships. In that regard, it’s a wistful, melancholy success, another outstanding effort from Sarah Polley.